U.S. appetite for Internet user data not unique

Analysis of transparency reports from Google, Microsoft, Skype show other countries equally -- or more -- demanding

For all the privacy concerns raised by Edward Snowden's leaks about government data collection activities, the U.S. is not alone or even always the most demanding when it comes to law enforcement requests for customer data from Internet service providers.

A whitepaper released by Washington-based law firm Hogan Lovells this week shows that law enforcement agencies in several other countries in Europe and elsewhere have equally, if not even more, voracious appetites for such data.

The conclusions in the whitepaper are based on a review of all the transparency reports released by Google, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn and Skype that detail all requests for customer data made by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In the U.S, at least, requests for the data are typically made in connection with ongoing criminal and other investigations by law enforcement.

Transparency reports do not document national security-related requests for data by the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies. Google has been releasing the data for the past three years, Twitter and LinkedIn have done so for the past 18 months while Skype and Microsoft have been at it for one year.

Christopher Wolf, author of the whitepaper and director of the privacy and information management practice at Hogan Lovells, said the data shows that, when adjusted for population size and numbers of Internet users, U.S. demands for customer data are not all that extraordinary.

In fact, in 2012, the rate at which European governments sought access to personal data from major service providers increased faster than the rate of U.S. government requests, Wolf noted.

"Many in Europe right now are under the impression that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies have a greater appetite for data and access more data than anyone else in the world," Wolf said. But with respect to law enforcement requests at least, the U.S. is at or below the levels in many other countries, he said.

Google's transparency reports, for instance, show that U.S law enforcement agencies made an average of 51.3 requests per 1 million Internet users between 2010 and 2012. During the same period, law enforcement in Hong Kong made an average of 59.05 requests per million users, the United Kingdom had 49.9 requests and France had 50.24 requests.

Even Brazil, which has been vocal in its criticism of U.S. government access to Internet data, had an average of 35.87 requests between 2010 and 2012.

The data also showed that Microsoft received significantly more requests for data from other governments than it did from the U.S. Because of Microsoft's broader global footprint and the fact that it has been around for longer than Google, foreign governments appear to be more used to making information requests from the company, the Hogan Lovells paper noted.

In 2012, the only year for which data is available from Microsoft, the government in Taiwan made 248.13 requests for data per 1 million Internet users, Turkey had 342.39 requests, the United Kingdom had 167.69 requests, while France made 157.77 requests for data per 1 million Internet users. In contrast, the U.S. had 43.33 requests per 1 million Internet users. A similar pattern is apparent in data from Skype.

U.S. law enforcement agencies however were well ahead of their counterparts in other countries in their requests for data from Twitter. The average number of annual requests for Twitter data per 1 million Internet users was 6.28 compared to the next highest number of 1.85 requests per million in Qatar.

The U.S. did not stand out from the pack even when Internet-user data requests were combined for Google, Microsoft, Skype, Twitter and LinkedIn, Wolf noted. In fact, the United States ranked No. 7, behind countries like United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia and Taiwan, in the number of law enforcement request for Internet user data, he said.

"Every country requires both law enforcement and national security access to Internet data," Wolf said. The uproar caused in the U.S. by Snowden's leaks reflects the level of concern that exists in the country over privacy violations he said. He noted that since Snowden's revelations, steps are being taken to add more controls and increase transparency over government data collection activities. "We haven't seen similar procedural protections in Europe or elsewhere," he said.

The privacy blog Pogowasright.org was the first to report news of the Hogan Lovells whitepaper.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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