Visualizing Google’s Transparency Report

//Earlier this year, Google released its semi-annual transparency report. With each release, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and SHARE Defense have gained new insight into the massive quantity of user-data requests the search giant receives from states around the world. As part of their mission to spotlight the secrecy surrounding state surveillance, EFF and SHARE Defense have released three different charts highlighting trends in increasing state demands for user data. CGCS had the opportunity to talk with the authors, Katitza Rodriguez of EFF and Olivia Solis of SHARE Defense, about the process in which they organized and visualized the information from Google. We have also included their charts and tables below.

Earlier this year Google updated their transparency report, which includes information about the user information requests Google received from the government and how many of those requests were granted by the corporation. To help the public better understand the information provided by Google, Katitza Rodriguez of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Olivia Solis of Share Defense helped make the information more accessible with charts, graphs, and statistics.  CGCS spoke with both authors to discuss their motivation and the process through which they organized and visualized the data.

At the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) State Surveillance and Human Rights Camp in Brazil in December 2012, Katitza Rodriguez of EFF and Olivia Solis of Share Defense began discussing how to make the information from Google’s transparency report more accessible to the public while exploring trends in the data. As a result, EFF and Share Defense collaborated to visualize the report and supplement the information with census data to better understand how each country’s user-data requests compare to its size and population.

After examining the charts, one of the first trends that emerged is an increase of total data requests from governments and law enforcement agencies in the last three years. Requests have jumped over 70% from 12,539 in the last six months of 2009 to 21,389 in the second half of 2012 due to greater awareness by governments and law enforcement agencies about the usefulness of online user-data and the expanded footprint of Google and the Internet as a whole. Google is more popular in some countries than in others, which also explains the discrepancy of requests between countries in the same region. Also, countries with smaller populations, like Portugal, which is 14th in the world and 7th in Europe in total user-data requests, actually have higher rates of requests than a country like India, which is second in total requests, due to their smaller populations.

Another noticeable trend is the large amount of user-data requests Google receives from law enforcement agencies in the United States.  This may be explained by the popularity of Google in the United States and the fact the company was founded, and is currently headquartered, in California. As a result, domestic law enforcement agencies will often make user requests on behalf of other nations through mutual legal assistance treaties (MLATs). Both EFF and SHARE Defense argue that Google should release more detailed MLAT information in future transparency reports so the public better understands how many user-data requests come from the United States government and how many requests are being carried out for other nations.

EFF and SHARE Defense hope Google’s transparency report and their visualization will make this data more accessible to the public and put more pressure on other companies to release comprehensive transparency reports to the public.  Twitter released their second transparency report this year and Microsoft released their 2012 Law Enforcement Requests Report last month. Both Twitter and Microsoft’s reports looked similar to Google’s, further evidence of Google’s influence on the industry’s view on transparency.  However, many other large companies, like Yahoo! and Apple, continue to refuse to produce transparency reports so the public can develop a better understanding about how those companies use their personal data.

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