In the online age, it has become increasingly necessary for law enforcement agencies to turn to companies like Google to retrieve data about suspects — like emails, online search queries and location tracking information. But with requests rising, Google recently began charging law enforcement for that kind of data.
The new fees range from $45 for a subpoena to $60 for a wiretap and $245 for a search warrant, according to a notice sent to law enforcement officials that was reviewed by the New York Times. There will be separate fees for other legal requests.
A Google spokesman said these fees were introduced in order to help offset the costs of complying with warrants and subpoenas, and federal law does allow companies to charge the government such fees. However, the tech giant’s decision marks a significant change in how it deals with these kinds of requests.
Most tech companies have chosen not to charge government and law enforcement agencies, in part because they haven’t wanted to seem like they’re seeking a profit from legal searches. It also can be difficult to track and enforce such charges because of the sheer number of requests that a company like Google has to deal with. For reference, in the first half of 2019, Google received more than 75,000 requests for data on nearly 165,000 accounts worldwide, and approximately a third of those requests came from the United States.
Some privacy experts have recommended that companies start charging fees in an effort to cut down such requests. They believe that reducing the number of requests will in turn limit the overall surveillance citizens are under.
Al Gidari, a lawyer who has represented Google and other technology and telecom companies, told the New York Times that these fees could recover some of the costs that are required to fill such a huge number of requests. He added that requests have gotten more complicated over time as tech companies have compiled more data and law enforcement has gotten more tech savvy.
“None of the services were designed with exfiltrating data for law enforcement in mind,” he said. “The actual costs of doing wiretaps and responding to search warrants is high, and when you pass those costs on to the government, it deters from excessive surveillance.”
Google released a report that revealed an increase of more than 50% in the number of search warrants it received in the first half of 2019 compared to the same time frame a year earlier. The number of subpoenas also rose approximately 15%. In the first half of last year, Google received almost 13,000 subpoenas and more than 10,000 search warrants from American law enforcement.
There also will be cases in which Google does not charge these new fees. A company spokesperson said they will not ask for reimbursement in life-threatening emergencies or cases involving investigations of child safety.
Google’s fees are so new and the number of data requests is so vast that it’s difficult to know the full impact of this policy. Only time will tell.