When using the Internet, most people probably have an implicit understanding that there is, somewhere, some anonymous federal agent sitting inside some anonymous federal building, tracking and recording the websites we visit, the emails we send, and generally everything we do online. And while the Internet has been revolutionary in its ability to break the information stranglehold that the political class held before the advent of the World Wide Web, governments around the world have eagerly developed extensive networks to spy on anyone they wish.
When exposed, this spying tends to rankle the tech companies drafted into the federal government’s army of snoops, and in response, several companies have released transparency reports to inform the public how often governments request information and the specific nature of the request. What those reports reveal, while not all that surprising, should alarm us nonetheless.
A new report by Internet giant Google on the requests it receives from governments and courts to hand over user data reveals much about the activities of the surveillance state and its relationship with the tech giant.
The report shows that for 2015, 40,677 requests for user data were made. For 2014, the number of requests reached 35,365. The number of requests has tracked upward each year since Google began releasing the reports in 2009. Of all the governments that have requested data, the United States makes up 79% of those requests that have yielded data, far and away the state that makes the most user data requests.
The requests made by the U.S. government take the form of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests, National Security Letters (NSLs) from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and requests from other law enforcement organizations.
Google isn’t allowed to share the specific number of FISA requests it receives; it can only share a range of requests. For example, from January to June 2015, between 500 and 999 content requests were made under FISA. The same goes for NSLs; Google can only share a range of NSLs received, not an exact number. Information on law enforcement data requests, however, is much more specific, with data on subpoenas, wiretap orders, and other information disclosed.
The good news—if there can be any—in Google’s transparency report is that, while user data requests are increasing, the gap is widening between the requests and Google’s compliance with them. But that probably doesn’t mean too much, considering that Google, along with Amazon, complies with government requests for user data far more often than does Apple. According to Apple’s latest transparency report, the company only gave requested user information to the government in 27% of cases between June 2014 and June 2015. That number is much higher for Google at 67%.
Amazon has a rate of compliance similar to that of Google. According to Amazon’s own transparency report, the company complied with around 67% of the 813 subpoenas they were served.
Do we have a right to know when we are being spied on by our own government? Microsoft seems to think so, and filed a lawsuit over the matter in April of this year. The U.S. government, of course, thinks otherwise, and asked that the lawsuit be thrown out. According to a July 22 Bloomberg article, the Justice Department responded to Microsoft’s lawsuit by stating that the lawsuit has no basis because, it claims, U.S. law allows for interception of electronic communications without a warrant. But after dealing with thousands of government-issued secrecy orders that prevent Microsoft from informing their customers that they are being spied on, the company has had enough.
Secretive surveillance of all our activities, online or off, should always be viewed as an outrage, as a violation of our liberty and not to be tolerated. But while several tech giants have been fighting the battle against warrantless mass surveillance of our online activities, should we really rely on these distant mega-corporations to fight this battle for us? After all, aside from Apple, they are complying with the surveillance state more often than not.
The issue at hand is how much intrusion into our private lives we will tolerate. How much longer will we allow the hobgoblins of so-called terrorism and crime to be used to justify secret spying for unknown purposes?
We are being conditioned to accept this as the new normal. Death, taxes, endless war, total surveillance . . . the new inevitability, perhaps, but more comparable to a prison than to a free society.