Put your tin foil hats on. It’s conspiracy theory time.
Since 2010, Google has been tracking and releasing their bi-yearly Transparency Report. In it, they give details about the number of requests various governments make to the search giant for personal information. On the surface, this seems to be an excellent way for Google to maintain their position as a company that is fighting for the privacy of its users by informing them and giving them awareness that they should join the fight to keep the internet, our activities, and the data that we put online as private as possible.
What if (stay with me on this one) there really is no need for the highest levels of government to request data from Google because they already have complete access to all of it? These reports, as ominous as they may seem to the informed, are simply not presenting large enough numbers for anyone to be concerned. 33,634 users had data that was requested by governments around the world from July to December, 2012. On average that’s about 5,500 per month made to a company that serves hundreds of millions of people. When one looks at the numbers, they’re really not that scary.
Another thing to note is that there is a steady trend that is appearing. The trend is just barely worrisome enough to keep the bloggers and tech rags of the world a little interested, but not nearly at a scale that would make bloggers start ringing alarm bells. You can see from some of the articles posted around the web about the report that bloggers and journalists were grasping at straws to find a controversial point to make. In essence, the report doesn’t point to an impending privacy apocalypse or a sharp rise in activity. In Google’s own words, the trend is in line with the growing size of its user base.
“…showing that the steady increase in government requests for our users’ data continued in the second half of 2012, as usage of our services continued to grow.”
One might even think that there’s really nothing to see here once they examine the data. What if the data is only a partial picture? What if Google is reporting the requests made by standard government agencies and law enforcement bodies but is hiding the reality that the US government and possibly other governments already have a fire hose feeding them all of the data. This wasn’t really possible just a few years ago. Today, it would not be that hard, not a lot of people would have to know about it on either side, and the technology exists to make the constant transfer of data almost completely impossible to detect.
What if Big Brother already knows (at least at the highest levels) and the requests are used to legally collect the data that they already have illegally? There’s not evidence to support this. There’s no way to prove or refute the idea. The only thing we know for sure is that it can be done.
One thing to note before you take down the aluminum wrapped around your head: Google has every reason to do all of this. They need to maintain the public’s perception that they’re a conscientious tech company with the users’ best interests in mind. They also need to maintain a cooperation with the governments of the world that tend to turn on companies that get too big without being in their back pocket. Google cut a deal with the FTC at the beginning of the year that kept them from pursuing an antitrust case. They’ve had public mini-wars with European nations, Australia, and China in recent months; China is the only one that seems to be playing the hardest level of hardball.
It would make sense for Google to cut some deals. They need more protection from the government than anything else. Their competitors are fading in many arenas, especially search advertising. The only thing that could take them down would be the US government.
Sure, it’s far fetched. It’s likely just another conspiracy theory that has no basis in reality. It’s also a distinct possibility and nobody would be able to discover it if it were true regardless of how many inquiries they made. As hard as it is to imagine, it’s possible that the US government knows everything that Google knows when it comes to its users. Unlikely, but possible.
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“Conspiracy” image courtesy of Shutterstock.