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Google will charge law enforcement and government agencies to access user data

Google has begun charging law enforcement for access to user data, according to a report by the New York Times. The company is levying fees of $45 for a subpoena, $60 for a wiretap, and $245 for a search warrant, according to documents reviewed by the NYT.

The company receives a high volume of requests from law enforcement agencies to hand over data about its users and has therefore decided to bring in charges to “offset the costs” of compiling this data. According to the report, Google is legally allowed to levy these charges but traditionally big technology companies have handed over data without any charges.

On the one hand, it seems in poor taste that Google could be seen to be profiting from the performance of police searches. On the other, an incentive against law enforcement performing overly broad searches will be welcomed by privacy advocates.

In its transparency report about requests for user information, Google revealed an uptick in requests over the last decade, with over requests for data of over 160,000 users or accounts in the year 2019. In between 60 and 80% of cases over the years, Google has handed over at least some data. “We review each request we receive to make sure it satisfies applicable legal requirements and Google’s policies,” Google says in the report. “If we feel that a request is overly broad — asking for too much information given the circumstances — we seek to narrow it.”

Google also shares that, regarding legal requests from government agencies in the U.S., “By far the most common is the subpoena, followed by search warrants.” It says it notifies users whose data has been requested where possible, as “If Google receives ECPA legal process for a user’s account, it’s our policy to notify the user via email before any information is disclosed unless such notification is prohibited by law.”

As concerning as it is that Google can make money (albeit a modest amount) from handing over user data to governments and law enforcement agencies, this week has seen far more worrying news regarding privacy. Phone-hacking technology seems to be in widespread use among law enforcement agencies in the U.S., with reports of the Israeli firm Cellebrite hacking phones on behalf of the U.S. government.

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