Transparency, search engines and government appetite for data

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There has been a long-standing debate between privacy advocates and government officials about the extent of government interest in the information transmitted across domestic and international networks. The passage of USA PATRIOT Act intensified this debate and prompted concern from a more general audience as well. Ever since, the digerati and online crowd have been whispering and wondering about the interface between search engines, particularly Google, and law enforcement and national security bodies.

In brief, this comes up in classrooms and at conferences in roughly the following exchange:

Q. "So, should I worry about what Google knows about me?"

A. "Maybe, but I'd worry more about what the government gets out of Google, then matches with what they already know about you."

Around this issue, researchers like Chris Soghoian in the US (as well as Ben Hayes and Simon Davies overseas) have been pushing for greater transparency from both companies and government on the use of broad data production powers.  Last week, to their great credit, Google took a big first step and published an interactive map on the numbers and types of data requests they recieve from governments around the world.  This coincides with another important US private sector push - Digitaldueprocess.org - that is asking for clear, consistent and accountable measures to be put in place when government ask companies to 'check up' on their customers.

We commend Google and others involved for this significant first step, look forward to improvements and more details as they tweak the reporting model and sincerely hope other companies (and, ahem! governments) follow suit.

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