Google Pleads for Better Cross-Border Exchange of Digital Evidence

Google asked for MLAT reform, and released its biannual Transparency Report revealing it received a record number of government requests for user data.

Google said it is receiving a growing number of cross-border requests for user data to be used as evidence in criminal prosecutions. The volume of requests is also exposing weaknesses in the existing process for exchanging data between countries called the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLAT), according to the company.

Google General Counsel Kent Walker said Thursday that the MLAT underscores many of the negatives involved in these cross-jurisdiction prosecution attempts, starting with the fact that, on average, MLAT requests in the United States take 10 months to process. It’s “often slow and cumbersome,” Walker said. “That’s a long time for an investigator to wait.”

MLATs are processed by the U.S. State Department and Department of Justice and there is cooperation with a long list of countries worldwide listed on the State Department website. The State Department facilitates the exchange of digital evidence with foreign governments in joint investigations of fraud, money laundering, drug trafficking and other crimes with a stated goal of improving narcotics-related law enforcement, prosecutions of said crimes, and improved asset forfeiture.

Google has long championed transparency when it comes to handing over user data for criminal and national security investigations. Walker said the time has come for a better and faster way to collect cross-border evidence.

“A sustainable framework for handling digital evidence in legitimate cross-border investigations will help avoid a chaotic, conflicting patchwork of data location proposals and ad hoc surveillance measures that may threaten privacy and generate uncertainty, without fundamentally advancing legitimate law enforcement and national security interests,” Walker said.

Walker added that a new framework should balance the needs of law enforcement with the privacy of users of technology services, and that companies such as Google should be involved in the development of a new framework.

“This discussion will raise difficult questions about the scope of government surveillance powers, the extent of digital jurisdiction, the importance of rapid investigations, and privacy rights in the Internet age—fundamental issues that can’t be adequately addressed by courts using antiquated legal standards or by governments acting in an ad hoc fashion,” Walker said.

Walker’s plea came in conjunction with the release of Google’s bi-annual Transparency Report statistics. For the last six months of 2016, Google received the most worldwide government requests for user data (45,549) since it began publishing its Transparency Reports in 2010. By comparison, in the first half of 2016, Google received 44,943 such requests.

“In many ways, this shouldn’t be surprising,” Walker said. “As more people use more of our services, and as we offer new ones, it is natural that we are seeing an increase in government requests.”

However, Google said it turned over data for 60 percent of the worldwide requests it received, an all-time low (down 4 percent year-over-year).

Google said it received 13,682 requests for user data from the U.S. government, and produced some data in 79 percent of those requests, affecting 27,272 user accounts.

In December, Google was free to disclose the contents of eight National Security Letters received between 2010 and 2015.

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