Why Is Google Pushing Back So Hard Against the Feds?

Google can’t keep going without ad dollars, and that means preserving user trust.

Google has asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the federal court that oversees surveillance warrants, to loosen its gag order on how often the federal government requests user data from tech companies.

According to The Washington Post, which first reported the petition, Google wants to publish more accurate information on the government’s requests. (The Post also offers a link to Google’s legal filing.)

In a series of controversial articles published by The Guardian and The Washington Post, Google was cited as one of nine technology companies that had given the NSA unimpeded access to their users’ data. Google denies those allegations.

“Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data,” a company spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to Slashdot. “We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data.”

The Google spokesperson suggested he didn’t “have any insight” into why Google would have appeared in the NSA’s alleged PowerPoint presentation, which was leaked to the newspapers by a former contractor named Edward Snowden.

In a June 11 letter addressed to U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and FBI director Robert Mueller, Google chief legal officer David Drummond again emphasized that reports of his company freely offering user data to the NSA and other federal agencies were untrue. “We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope,” he wrote, adding that such revelations would show “that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made.”

As part of its regularly updated Transparency Report, Google posts information about the National Security Letters (NSLs) it receives from the federal government. However, the government requires Google to report NSLs as a numerical range rather than an exact number. Drummond was basically asking for that policy to be revised.

Why is Google making such a show of pushing back against the feds? Google relies on user data to better target ads. If users suspect that the search-engine giant is letting the federal government pick through their data without a warrant, a healthy portion of them would probably switch over to other cloud services—which could severely impact Google’s bottom line. So it’s in Google’s best interest to fight for user privacy and security in the loudest ways possible. In the end, it all comes down to cash.


Image: Google