Looking through the Google Transparency Report

gtreportShock! Horror! We’re living 1984. Or maybe not so much.

The latest Google Transparency Report shows what the media has been calling an “alarming” and “troubling” increase in government requests for user information which are now “at an all time high” and have “skyrocketed to new levels”. Wow, scary stuff.

So what was this alarming increase?

The Report details government requests for Google users’ data. Globally there were 20,938 requests in the first half of 2012 and 21,389 in the second half (that’s a 2 per cent increase). In Australia there were 523 requests in the first half of 2012 and 584 in the second half (an, even more significant, 12% increase). And don’t percentage changes always look so impressive when you are dealing with a low base?

But more significantly is that these numbers are absolutely tiny when compared with the number of Google users. Google has between 200 and 400 million accounts. The percentage of accounts where information has been requested is simply tiny. And while we’re comparing things it’s crucial to remember that Google is actually publishing these numbers – we have no comparison with other service providers, let alone with the telecoms companies.

Now don’t get me wrong, Google holds a lot of information and that information deserves to be protected from casual view. Governments should not have the right to just rock up and take a look. But then that’s the point – they don’t. Google complies with properly authorised requests; and it counts them and tells the world what’s going on. There’s equally no question that the number of requests is going up, but then so is the number of users and the range of circumstances when user information could be useful to an agency – a few years ago Google would not have held location data for example. So while the Transparency Report numbers are interesting and absolutely worthy of monitoring, they are a long way short of apocalyptic.

Keeping a vigilant eye on what’s happening to your own personal data and to all of our data is a crucial part of participation in a modern society. Privacy is yet another area where society’s rules and norms have yet to settle down into some sort of balance with what technology allows, if they ever will. But at the same time it’s important to retain some sense of perspective on these things.

Of course in a better world it would not be Google publishing a report on requests for information by the Government; it would be the Government publishing a report on all requests for information it had made to everyone. Now maybe that would be really scary.

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