How to Explain Government Spying to Your Kids

A new Google video covers how the company responds to government requests for user data, with the handy help of cute stop-motion toys.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
March 27, 2014, 10:32 a.m.

Google de­cided to have a little fun on Thursday with the re­lease of its new­est trans­par­ency re­port, turn­ing to stop-mo­tion an­im­a­tion to tell the tale of how the com­pany pro­cesses gov­ern­ment re­quests for user data.

An amus­ing 3-minute video chron­icles “in plain lan­guage” how the Sil­ic­on Val­ley com­pany re­sponds to search war­rants from law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials — and the many op­por­tun­it­ies they have to re­ject re­quests from scary-look­ing G-men that are overly broad or con­tain in­ac­cur­ate in­form­a­tion.

“In the course of a crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tion, some­times the gov­ern­ment re­quests in­form­a­tion on Google users,” the video’s up­beat nar­rat­or be­gins. “Here’s how we pro­tect users’ in­form­a­tion from ex­cess­ive re­quests while also fol­low­ing the law.”

Google’s new trans­par­ency num­bers, by the way, re­veal that gov­ern­ment re­quests for user in­form­a­tion in crim­in­al cases are up about 120 per­cent since the first re­port was pub­lished in 2009. Those re­quests—gen­er­ally from the FBI and loc­al po­lice—are sep­ar­ate from the con­tro­ver­sial sur­veil­lance pro­grams housed at the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency that col­lects In­ter­net data from Google and oth­er tech com­pan­ies, the de­tails of which were ex­posed by leaks from Ed­ward Snowden last year.

“Though our num­ber of users has grown throughout the time peri­od, we’re also see­ing more and more gov­ern­ments start to ex­er­cise their au­thor­ity to make re­quests,” Google said in a com­pan­ion blog post an­noun­cing its up­dated trans­par­ency re­port. “You de­serve to know when and how gov­ern­ments re­quest user in­form­a­tion on­line, and we’ll keep fight­ing to make sure that’s the case.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced in Janu­ary that it would per­mit In­ter­net com­pan­ies to dis­close more about gov­ern­ment data re­quests for cus­tom­er in­form­a­tion, say­ing that “pub­lic in­terest in dis­clos­ing the in­form­a­tion now out­weighs the na­tion­al se­cur­ity con­cerns that re­quired its clas­si­fic­a­tion.”

But Google and oth­er com­pan­ies have clamored for more trans­par­ency, and have re­peatedly cri­ti­cized NSA sur­veil­lance in par­tic­u­lar for harm­ing busi­ness and re­la­tions with oth­er coun­tries.

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