India ranks only behind the United States among the countries which obtain user data from Google.
According to the figures published by Google as part of its Transparency Report, in 2012 India made a total of 4750 data requests and asked specifically for a total of 7573 users and accounts. More than 60 percent of the time some data was produced by Google in response to the Indian requests.
The figures for the United States are much higher. For the same period the U.S. made a total of 16,407 data requests and asked specifically for a total of 31,072 users and accounts. More than 85 percent of the time some data was produced by Google in response to the American requests.
The top six countries in a list of 31 countries that made such requests are the United States, India, Brazil, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Each of these made more than 1000 such requests last year. The total number of global data requests last year was 21,389 and the number of specific users and accounts was 33,634. In 66 percent of cases some data was produced and furnished by Google.
Rather than my explaining what these figures mean, let me quote what Google’s FAQs say about these requests.
“Government agencies make requests to Google companies seeking information about Google users accounts or products. In this report, we are generally revealing statistics about demands in criminal investigations. In some cases we may not be able to tell if the demand is for a criminal investigation as opposed to some other purpose. In those situations, we try to include the request in these statistics,” it explains what a user data request means.
Google is careful to say that while the statistics cover requests in criminal matters, the company “can’t always be sure that a request necessarily relates to a criminal investigation, however, so there are likely a small number of requests that fall outside of this category.”
It is the part where Google says it cannot always be sure that a request necessarily relates to criminal matters that raises serious questions about internet privacy. It is here that the debate enters a controversial realm. In theory and, significantly, in practice it is possible that some of those requests for data and users/accounts have a political dimension. There is no real way of knowing the motivation behind those requests because governments can always layer it with a veneer of criminality.
There are cases when a user whose data is being requested will be notified by Google via email. However, I am sure there is a significantly larger number of cases where governments would expressly forbid Google from alerting the concerned users so as not to compromise whatever investigation that is underway.
You can see India related statistics here. Do note how the numbers have gone up considerably since 2009.
So far I am agnostic to the larger meaning of these requests except saying that it is always tempting for any government to monitor what its citizens are doing. I am not entirely sure whether 7573 users and accounts for which information was requested by New Delhi should be considered high enough to alarm advocates of privacy.
It is hard to second guess government when it comes investigation into criminal activity which may prompt such requests. However, it always helps to be vigilant about the existence of such requests.
There is no way for me to know whether Google has ever received any request about me. I have never received an email alerting me to such a request. But then they are not always allowed to send an alert email. One can safely assume that my laughable inconsequentiality is in itself my immunity against being sought out.