Data privacy continues to be a large issue for millions all over the globe for various reasons but has specifically impacted the LGBT community as it relates to being outed, sometimes as a result of online data being inadvertently exposed or used in a harmful way. The House of Representatives has officially recognized January 28 as “Data Privacy Day” for the last four years. Among other things, it “encourages individuals across the Nation to be aware of data privacy concerns and to take steps to protect their personal information online” and furthermore “encourages State and local governments to observe the day with appropriate activities that promote awareness of data privacy”.
This may be the most ironic bill coming out of the House of Representatives based on Google’s just released Transparency Report. Google’s Transparency Report, released on Data Privacy Day, details the number of requests Google receives to hand over user data from governments and courts around the world within the last six months (requests can take the form of subpoenas, search warrants and others including court orders). Not unexpectedly, the user data request numbers have increased each year. In the United States, from July – December 2012 there were 8,438 User Data Requests (government requests for disclosure of user data from Google accounts or services) spanning 14,791 different Users/Accounts. 88% of the requests resulted in some date being produced by Google. Comparatively, from January and June 2012 there were 7,969 User Data Requests spanning 16,281 Users/Accounts. So what does Google do when it gets these requests? First, they review to ensure that it is a legitimate request (typically in writing, signed by an authorized official and issued under an appropriate law). Google then evaluates the scope of the request and, if it’s overly broad, may refuse the request or seek to narrow it. Finally, they notify users about legal demands (when allowed to and able) so the user can contact the demanding entity or a lawyer. Google requires that agencies conducting criminal investigations use a search warrant to get the information they need. For more information on this process for Google, click here. While not perfect, Google is at least trying to strike a balance between its users’ privacy and the legitimate needs of government agencies. Google is also advocating for the update of laws like the U.S. Electronic Communications Privacy Act so that the same protections apply to user email and online documents that apply to personal documents in your home. The take-away here is that online privacy is still a murky area where the laws have not caught up with the new technologies. As more and more of our lives go online, these privacy issues will only become more urgent. As always, constant vigilance over your online life is the best protection you have right now. Resources: