Lessons learned from Google’s Transparency Report

Google makes a number of people nervous when it comes to personal information and has made its share of mistakes. That said, Google has also made significant strides in giving its users greater control over their personal information on its servers. While users have a pretty good idea what personal information Google has collected from them and have options when it comes to getting that personal information out of Google’s services, the one area which Google has remained somewhat opaque about is what personal information Google has been giving government agencies behind the scenes … at least until now.

What many people may not realise is that Google can be compelled to hand over users’ personal information to a variety of government agencies, worldwide. This may be in terms of local regulatory or law enforcement mechanisms. Google’s privacy policy deals with this and states that it may hand over your personal information when faced with such requests:

Google only shares personal information with other companies or individuals outside of Google in the following limited circumstances:

  • We have your consent. We require opt-in consent for the sharing of any sensitive personal information.
  • We provide such information to our subsidiaries, affiliated companies or other trusted businesses or persons for the purpose of processing personal information on our behalf. We require that these parties agree to process such information based on our instructions and in compliance with this Privacy Policy and any other appropriate confidentiality and security measures.
  • We have a good faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to (a) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request, (b) enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations thereof, (c) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, or (d) protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public as required or permitted by law.

This is not unique to Google and you will find that virtually all companies that take privacy policies seriously will have provisions that inform you about their obligations to hand over personal information in these circumstances.

While Google is required to comply with many of these requests, it has taken a rather bold decision not to hide these requests from its users and, in fact, to expose these requests in an aggregated form to its users through what it calls its Transparency Report. This initiative makes sure that users know which countries make requests of Google and how Google generally responds to these requests:

Transparency Report - Government Requests

The Transparency Report also reveals how much traffic its various services receive. This data can be broken down by region too:

Transparency Report - Traffic

Online privacy is a tough challenge to meet and Google has made its share of mistakes. That said, the search giant is also at the cutting edge when it comes to giving users better information about what it does with their personal information. This latest initiative reminded me of the recent PigSpotter debate and subsequent reports how local law enforcement is dealing with the PigSpotter phenomenon – poorly. The Transparency Report seems to stand in stark contrast to efforts to clamp down on PigSpotter by, among other things, reportedly conducting illegal searches of motorists’ mobile phones for hints of their involvement in the PigSpotter phenomenon. It also stands in stark contrast to the South African government’s efforts to implement its controversial Protection of Information Bill which will likely take media freedom back at least two decades and cripple the right to freedom of expression for the sake of avoiding the embarrassment of having politicians’ failings exposed in the press.

Google’s Transparency Report is a reminder of the need for a degree of transparency and the accountability that transparency brings. It is also a reminder that companies like Google can still be required to hand over personal information to government agencies which may not share Google’s respect for your personal information (its only fair to note that my perception of Google’s respect for privacy is not universal and there are valid criticisms of Google’s handling of personal information). We can only hope that this spirit of transparency and respect for privacy visibly filters through to our government agencies and authorities.

As an aside but on a related note, take a look at this video if you are curious about Google’s approach to privacy generally. Also be sure to take a look at Google’s Privacy Centre for more information.

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