(WASHINGTON) -- This year has brought the biggest expansion yet of government efforts around the world to gather user data from Google, one of the globe's most-used search engines and online destinations, according to a new report from the company first obtained by ABC News. While requests for user data grew everywhere in the past year, U.S. government attempts to access such data ballooned nearly three times faster than requests from overseas, the report showed.
Google is set to officially release the report later on Thursday. "Americans still have no way of knowing whether the government is striking the right balance between privacy and security, or whether their privacy is being violated," Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said during a Senate hearing Wednesday, speaking generally about the need for more transparency over government collection of data.
In the first six months of 2013, the U.S. government submitted 10,918 requests to Google for information about its users, up from 7,969 requests a year before, the report said. The numbers have more than doubled since 2009. "This comes as usage of our services continues to grow, but also as more governments have made requests than ever before," Google's legal director, Richard Salgado, writes in the report.
In the first half of 2013, Google complied with 83 percent of the U.S. government requests it received. The requests to Google came from law enforcement agencies and other entities with authority to investigate crime, such as courts and judges. Indeed, the report indicates that 68 percent of requests this year came in the form of subpoenas, 28 percent were warrants or other court orders, and 1 percent were "emergency disclosure requests," when authorities believed someone's life was in jeopardy and time was of the essence.
Such requests are not tied to the controversial U.S. surveillance programs recently disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Google -- followed by Yahoo, Microsoft and other companies -- has filed suit against the U.S. Justice Department, urging a federal judge to let it disclose some statistics about actions compelled under the controversial NSA data-mining programs. "Google recognizes the very real threats that the U.S. and other countries face today and, of course, governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But the current lack of transparency about the nature of government surveillance in democratic countries undermines the freedom and the trust most citizens cherish," Salgado said Wednesday during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Even when related to more standard law enforcement requests, U.S. law currently restricts Google from releasing anything beyond what's included in the company's report being released Thursday. At the Senate hearing he chaired, Franken said companies like Google are essentially under a government-imposed "gag order," adding that misconceptions and fears created by such "gag orders" are resulting in billions of dollars in losses to internet companies. Insisting action is "urgently necessary," Franken has introduced a bill -- The Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013 -- which he said would allow Internet and phone companies to tell users general information about the number of orders received for information and the number of users whose data was actually then turned over. The bill would also require NSA to disclose similar information about its activities, according to Franken. "It's very important that the users of our services understand that we are stewards of their data, we hold it responsibly, we treat it with respect, and that there's not any sort of confusion around the rules where we may be compelled to disclose the data to the government," Salgado said Wednesday. As for requests from governments outside the United States, in the first half of 2013, Google received 14,961 requests for user data from foreign governments, and complied with the vast majority of them. That's up from 12,969 a year ago.
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