To its credit, Google doesn’t like sharing its data with the government. The company has a history of resisting federal demands for information. Most notably, in Gonzales v. Google (2006), Google balked when the Justice Department demanded that it turn over more than a million searches for a given week. Not that Google always has a choice. Ultimately, it was forced to submit a more modest 50,000 URLs.
Ironically, says Rotenberg, Google’s decision to keep data invites subpoenas and warrants in the first place. “Its decision to keep so much user data continues to make it a very attractive target to the government, which is part of the reason we argue that Google really has an obligation to keep less information about the user,” he said.
The discovery that Google had been collecting Wi-Fi data through its Street View operation highlighted a case in which Google was not a collaborator with local governments, but a suspect. While Jeschke sees Google’s response as similarly cooperative, arguing that there is no reason to believe Google is lying when it says it collected this information by accident, Rotenberg has a more cynical take. “You don’t accidentally intercept communications in 30 countries over a three-year period,” he said.
If there’s one lesson from Google’s recent skirmishes with national and state governments, it’s that users can’t take their privacy for granted, whether they’re patronizing Google’s services or those offered by Yahoo, Microsoft, or Facebook. It’s not always clear how long companies hold onto data, and they don’t always use it as promised. They might not delete data at all, opting instead to partially anonymize the string of numbers that links it to your real-life identity. Allowing users to see what information Google is collecting about them helps, but until the federal government modernizes its privacy guidelines, Google (and everyone else) will continue to play by outdated rules.