Google has announced yet another record-high number of government requests for data about its users. The company's most recent Transparency Report reveals a scary trend against privacy - a big 23% jump within just one year; from nearly 62,000 in 2014 to over 76,000 requests in 2015!
Google updates its Transparency Report every 6 months, which gives us a good statistical overview of how governments interact with Google. The latest release is on H2 2015 because this information is subject to a 6-month delay.
So if we look at the year halves, we'll see an even more striking 35% jump in requests when comparing H2 2015 vs H2 2014! Google received more than 40,000 requests for data related to over 81,000 user accounts in H2 2015, while in H2 2014 that number was about 30,000.
In H1 2015, the company received about 35,000. So, the number of Google user data requests seem to increase by about 5,000 every 6 months.
The USA is among the most demanding countries
Of course, most requests came from the USA - above 24,500, followed by Germany with almost 11,400 requests and France with nearly 7,700 in 2015.
But this isn't really the point here. We live in a global village now, don't we? And also the report features dozens of other countries and most of them had their requests approved.
What's more interesting about countries, however, is request approvement rate. In H2 2015, the USA, as usual, ranked among the "leaders" with 79% of its 12,523 requests about 27,157 users approved by Google and serviced with "some data". But Japan did ever better with 85% out of, humbly, 163 requests about 279 users in H2 2015.
On the average, Google agreed to hand over "some" user data for 64% of the requests worldwide in H2 2015.
The bigger a company grows, the bigger privacy target it becomes
"Usage of our services has increased every year, and so have the user data request numbers," Google explained.
Indeed, when your websites and services are among the biggest in the world and you have data about millions or even billions of people, there's no way you can stay under the radar. If you use these services and a state needs to know something extra about you, you can likely say goodbye to your privacy. Often, you might not even know about that.
At least, Google is among those companies that do allow the public to know that something is happening, although not in detail. Other search engines and social media sites also voluntarily offer annual or semi-annual transparency reports related to state and federal law enforcement information requests about user data.
One of the organizations which follow the topic closely is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an international non-profit digital rights organization. It puts a lot of effort to accomplish these statistics by publishing a report called Who Has Your Back that ranks these companies from best to worst in terms of protecting subscriber data.
In the 2015 report, Google earned 3 out of 5 stars. Here's EFF's summary on the company's performance:
"Google earns three stars in this year’s Who Has Your Back report. This is Google’s fifth year in the report, and it has adopted some of the policies we are highlighting, including the best practices from prior reports. Nonetheless, there is room for improvement. Google should take a stronger position in providing notice to users about government data requests after an emergency has ended or a gag has been lifted. Furthermore, Google should provide transparency into its data retention policies."
To make things more interesting, here's something to think about until the next EFF report.
Yahoo! earned the maximum 5 stars from the EFF, while Verizon, which acquired Yahoo! this year, scored only 2 stars. Tumblr, owned by Yahoo!, made it to 3 stars.
And another similar example - LinkedIn received 4 stars, while Microsoft, which acquired LinkedIn also in 2015, got just 3 stars.
What do you think will happen with these scores next? Do you feel you can trust these companies and their web services? Will your trust in them decline?
How can you protect your privacy?
How about being more careful about what you use and who you trust? And can encryption help privacy?
Like I said, every big digital company is like a honey pot. You, and millions of others like you, represent the honey. And there are people who really like honey.
So what you could do about it is watch out which pot you decide to settle with. If all your communication goes through regular services, like Gmail, Skype, WhatsApp, and traditional mobile operators, one day someone particularly interested in you might knock on, say, Google's door. And Google might as well open and invite them in. Then what?...
It's not that Google is evil or governments are evil. No. Everybody does their job thinking they're the good guys. It's just the way it is and it's up to every person what to do about it.
If your emails and contacts really need to stay private, use an alternative, special email service shielded by PGP end-to-end encryption, like our Secure Email.
If the same goes for chat, choose wisely again and go for a service with OTR end-to-end encryption, such as our Secure Chat.
And there are even similar solutions for calls, like our Secure Voice, protected by ZRTP end-to-end encryption.
Presumably, you also need to store sensitive data. Don't use public cloud services for that purpose. Instead, opt for something like local encrypted storage and backup, just in case.
If you're still reading, and given the fact that the year is 2016, chances are pretty high that you actually need all this and even more. A device that you can use for any kind of end-to-end encrypted communication and encrypted storage and backup, as well as productivity. And if something bad happens, the device can be completely wiped in various ways, manually, remotely or automatically.
Well, we have just that. It's called the Secure Phone. We built it for people who need the highest levels of privacy and security without compromising the ability to freely communicate and do their business.
And keep in mind what our fellow security and privacy expert Bruce Schneier wrote in his book Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World:
"Data is the pollution problem of the information age, and protecting privacy is the environmental challenge."