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How the U.S. requests user data from Google

Sarah Menendez Dec 23, 2015

How the U.S. requests user data from Google

Sarah Menendez Dec 23, 2015

The United States again topped the list of nations that request user data from Google, according to last week’s Google Transparency Report. For the first six months of 2015, U.S. agencies made 31,343 requests for information on individual accounts — almost four times the requests made by Germany, the second nation on the list. Google granted 78 percent of the U.S. requests either partially or fully.

The report lists every country that has made a data request, the number of users/accounts specified in the requests and the percentage of requests granted. The U.S. has consistently requested the most information on individual accounts since Google first started reporting these numbers in 2011. 

We take a closer look at the six ways U.S. agencies typically request data from Google: subpoenas, wire taps, search warrants, emergencies, pen register orders and other court orders.

U.S. agencies made 12,002 requests from January to June 2015, compared to the peak of 12,539 requests reported in the first six months of 2014. Those queries may contain one or several more data requests for individual users or specific accounts. Overall, the average requests granted by Google for the most recent six months reported is 78 percent,  just under the 81.2 average between June 2013 and now.   

1.  Subpoenas: Court subpoenas are the most-used form of requesting legal accessto information from Google, accounting for nearly half of the user data requests in the last reporting period. Google said: “… a valid subpoena for your Gmail address could compel us to disclose the name that you listed when creating the account, and the IP addresses from which you created the account and signed in and signed out.” While the number of subpoenas for information has rested at 5,755 for the last 12 months of reporting, the number of users/accounts specified in those requests has gone from 13,141 to 21,667 between June 2014 to June 2015. On average, Google granted 80.4 percent of these requests in the last 30 months of reporting and 74 percent in the most recent report.

2. Search warrants: This is the second-most-used type of request for the most recent report,making up 3,588 of the 12,002 data requests and 6,730 of the accounts specified in the requests. Court-ordered search warrants under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act according to Google, can only be granted for criminal investigations. Google also states that in the case of a warrant, it may be required to overturn including “information stored in a Google Account, such as Gmail messages, documents, photos and YouTube videos.” In the last 30 months, Google has granted an average of 82.8 percent of search warrants; the most recent report came in at 85 percent of requests granted.


3. Other court orders: While Google doesn’t specify what exactly “other court orders” are in the data provided, the company said it follows ECPA rules, including ECPA court orders. These types of orders come in with the lowest percentage of requests granted, with an average of 75 percent in the last 30 months and 78 percent for the most recent reporting period. 



4. Emergency Requests: Emergencies accounted for a few hundred of the requests made by law enforcement. These requests are typically made in urgent situations, especially when someone is in danger and a law enforcement agency needs information quickly. Google granted 69 percent of the emergency requests made from January to June in 2015, which is down from 80 percent the six months prior and down from the three year average of 74.6 percent.  


 5. Pen register orders: Pen register, tap and trace orders require that a company turns over information about a user that may include IP address, phone numbers or internet service provider information. While this type of order does not require information on the actual content of a user’s communication, it does allow for an agency to receive real-time information about usage. Google granted 88 percent of pen register requests made this year, coming in a few points under the 90.6 percent average for the last 30 months of reporting.

  6. Wiretap orders account for the lowest number of requests by far because wiretaps require Google to turn over real-time information, it has the most legal restrictions, which Google notes in the report. It has granted all of the wiretap requests made in the last 30 months, with the exception of June to December 2014, when 13 accounts/users were queried and 80 percent of requests were granted.  

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