Did Google Just Make It Harder for Police to Catch Criminals?

After January 31st, Google will start asking law enforcement to pay for access to suspected criminals' data. What does this mean for the future?

Google just announced that it will now be charging law enforcement agencies a good deal of money for complying with data requests and search warrants.

Why? Because it can. But more importantly, because it helps ease the fears of its customers, who are concerned about their privacy. Given the amount of private information these companies sell to their advertisers, though, the move comes off as a little hypocritical.

The War on Surveillance

Lock With Code

The privacy feud between tech giants and law enforcement is a very old one. Shortly after the San Bernardino Massacre in 2015, Apple and the FBI found themselves in a lengthy legal battle over backdoor access to the shooter’s iPhone.

In 2017, the Department of Justice was locked in a fight with Microsoft after it tried to challenge the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Microsoft argued that the law violated the privacy of its users, while the DOJ claimed that Microsoft shouldn’t be able to sue for someone else’s fundamental rights.

These individual cases have piled up over the years and, now, things have reached a point where people are forced to choose between their privacy and security.  Still, it is too big a responsibility to leave this decision entirely up to for-profit corporations such as Google, Amazon, or Microsoft. After all, they don’t always have their customers’ best interests at heart.

Google’s Dilemma

Cybersecurity Mail

(Image source: csoonline.com)

Three years ago, a man was arrested in Mississippi. He had videos on his computer — hundreds of videos — of children being raped and sexually assaulted. Brian Lee Davis, 19, admitted to being part of a massive child pornography network and was sentenced to ten years in prison in July 2017.

Several months later, the police were no closer to tracking down other members of that network, including the people who had abused these children in the first place.

Davis had this information stored within his email account, and Google had access to the information in an offshore server that hosted all his emails. But the tech giant was just sitting on it, refusing to comply with the search warrant, saying that those servers were out of the local police’s jurisdiction.

Google has generally walked a thin line between working with law enforcement and painting itself as a believer in consumer privacy. With a new policy announcement, though, it may have just tipped the scales in favor of one.

Monetizing Search Warrants

handcuffs money

According to the New York Times, Google received 75,000 requests for data on its consumers in the first half of 2019, one-third of which were from the United States.

Until now, Google has entertained most reasonable requests without asking for anything in exchange. However, the search engine giant just sent out a letter to law enforcement agencies across the U.S, saying that it will now be charging a fee for this, even when a search warrant backs these data requests.

Technically speaking, tech giants are allowed to levy such charges by law. Google says that it’s doing this to factor in the extra costs of complying with these requests, but experts seem to agree that this is a move meant to cut down on the number of applications it receives.

Google’s new fees start from $45 for a subpoena to $245 for a search warrant. There are separate tiers for pen/trap orders and wiretaps too.

Albert Gidari, the Consultant Director of Privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, explained that this might help bring down unnecessary surveillance, which affects consumers worst of all. Gidari previously worked as a legal advisor for Google.

Wrapping Up

With smart homes and connected devices on the horizon, it’s hard for people not to be worried about their privacy. Every single device is collecting data about their users in one way or another and, in the wrong hands, they can create more problems that benefits.

Google seems to be trying to find a balance between working with law enforcement and slightly easing its users’ privacy concerns. The cost of following a subpoena or a search warrant is likely to frustrate some law enforcement departments, but the fear of losing business from consumers who are worried about their privacy is potentially a bigger risk to the tech company. That, of course, does not stop them from feeding sensitive information to their advertisers, who are worth more to their business than regular users.

Government requests aren’t always reasonable but, sometimes, these requests reveal information that leads to the arrest of violent criminals. From a public safety perspective, placing barriers to obtain data freely may slow down police response to prevent further crime.

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