Caleb Garling and Benny Evangelista
Updated 9:33 pm, Thursday, January 24, 2013Google's latest biannual report on government information requests into its users, released this week, highlights for the first time how outdated privacy laws allow access to users' information with only a subpoena - not a warrant, the standard in almost all other searches.
In the United States, from July to December 2012, 68 percent of government requests came via subpoena, Google reported. Just 22 percent were through search warrants. (The remaining 10 percent were legal processes Google said were "difficult to categorize.") In total, government agencies made 14,791 requests on U.S. users and accounts, and Google complied with 90 percent of them.
Google products - search, Gmail, YouTube, Docs, etc. - are accessed billions of time every day by users around the world. Most require accounts, and so, to facilitate better advertising, the search giant stores users' online activity.
But governments want that information too, especially when investigating crimes. Out-of-date digital privacy laws allow law enforcement agencies to sidestep the usual constitutional requirement to obtain a search and use only a subpoena, a document that can be issued by a prosecutor in private, not an impartial judge in open court.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the law that governs such requests, was passed in 1986, well before terms like "e-mail" or "cloud computing" were common. Law enforcement agencies have interpreted the language to mean that they can treat any e-mail older than 180 days stored on a third-party server (such as Gmail or Hotmail) to be abandoned.
Therefore, the logic goes, it has no reasonable expectation of privacy - a key ingredient to the "unreasonable" portion of a search - and can be subpoenaed. REA;D MORE