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Google repeatedly hands over user data to law enforcement without a warrant

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Google is turning over user data to US law enforcement, even when requests for that come without a warrant, in the form of requests that are not court-ordered.

That emerges from information shared with the LA Times by an anonymous Google user, who said they were notified about this in an email from the tech giant, who said the request came from the Department of Homeland Security, without including the request itself in the email.

When this Google user asked to see the document, it turned out to be an administrative subpoena issued by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), while the data the agency was requesting from Google included the user’s name, home, email, and IP addresses, as well as sources of payment associated with the account.

And here, the term “account” covers any Google service and app, such as Gmail, Google Pay, YouTube, etc.

In the original email that arrived from the giant’s Legal Investigations Support, the user was advised that this data would indeed be handed to the agency as requested unless they obtained a federal court stamped motion to quash the subpoena within seven days.

For most people, Just Futures’ co-founder Paromita Shah suggested, this is a task they would be unlikely to accomplish, as it requires hiring a lawyer and going to federal court, and do it all in such a short period
of time.

According to available data from the company’s transparency report covering the first half of 2020, Google received 15,500 subpoenas and complied in turning over “some data” in 83% percent of cases.

Despite this, a spokesman said Google was “vigorous” in the way it was protecting its users’ privacy, including by notifying them about such requests (by sending them emails that the report said had subject lines that resembled a phishing attempt.)

Unlike warrants, administrative subpoenas can only be enforced if the agency issuing it goes to court, should a company like Google refuse to cooperate.

And ICE is not the only agency that can issue them – all federal law enforcement is free to reach for the same tool in gaining access to users’ personal information.

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