While consumers tend to worry more about advertisers tracking their Web surfing, a new report finds that government surveillance of Americans is also on the rise.
Google's new transparency report reveals that U.S. government demands for the personal information of Google's users, like chat records or emails, continue to rise, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported.
The report serves to emphasize the heightened importance of increased transparency about how often the government is accessing sensitive information about who we are, where we go, what we do and why, the ACLU said.
According to Google, between July and December of 2010, government agencies worldwide asked Google to disclose personal information over 14,000 times. The country with by far the greatest number of requests — 4,601 — was the United States (Google complied with 94 percent of these requests). Brazil was second with 1,804.
"And yet our government itself doesn't reveal the number of requests it makes to companies like Google for information about its citizens and residents," said ACLU's Sandra Fulton. "In a country that prides itself on the democratic principles of protecting free expression and access to information, secretly demanding records of its citizens' online surfing, reading or location information is unacceptable.
"We applaud Google for continuing to report such abuses and encourage other companies to follow their lead," Fulton said.
The Google numbers likely just the tip of the iceberg. Law enforcement is increasingly taking advantage of technologies, like the Internet and cell phones, in order to monitor Americans.
In just one year, Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with the specific whereabouts of its customers more than 8 million times . And according to Sprint, the law requires neither a warrant nor probable cause to access this information.
Fulton said Sprint even set up a website for law enforcement agents so they could access these records from the comfort of their desks. "The tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement," said Sprint's Manager of Electronic Surveillance.
Fulton said Americans are increasingly reliant on private companies to protect them from unwarranted government spying.
"Demands for our online information go to companies, not to us. Therefore, we have to rely upon those companies to stand up to law enforcement and resist overbroad requests," Fulton said. "Where the law is outdated and full of loopholes, and where law enforcement is under no obligation to reveal how often it demands information about users, we need these companies to do more than just resist. We need them to step up and provide the transparency and accountability that users deserve."