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Google cuts part of team that vets police requests for user data

1 month ago 200

SAN FRANCISCO — Google cut a group of workers from the team responsible for making sure government requests for its users’ private information are legitimate and legal, raising concerns among workers and privacy experts that the company is weakening its ability to protect customer data.

Google laid off about 10 members of its Legal Investigations Support team late last month and told another group of about 10 that they would have to move cities or leave the company, effectively leading them to resign, according to a person familiar with the team’s operations and the firings. A Google spokesperson said the team has close to 150 people and that those who resign over the required re-location will be replaced.

Google has intimate data on the billions of people who use its products, including emails, passwords, financial information, web browsing history and physical locations, and police around the world are increasingly asking the tech company to provide that data to aid with investigations. The cuts represent a significant reduction in the company’s ability to vet and respond to search warrants and other requests, and have already led to delays in fulfilling court orders, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

“This restructuring simply consolidates the team’s work to a few existing locations and streamlines our workflows while maintaining our high standards for protecting our users’ privacy and timely responses to law enforcement demands,” said Matt Bryant, a spokesperson for Google. “Any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.”

On top of responding to subpoenas and search warrants for user data, the team also handles emergency requests from police for people’s locations when they are in crisis or if they threaten immediate violence, such as in the case of school shootings, the person familiar with the team said.


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The Alphabet Workers Union, a group that represents some Google workers and contractors, said in a statement late last month that the cuts would only exacerbate an existing staffing shortage on the team.

Before the cuts, the Legal Investigations Support team already struggled to handle the huge amount of government requests it was responsible for, said the person familiar with the team’s operation. Members of the team both develop policies about how to respond to requests and review individual requests themselves to ensure they are legal, the person said. Sometimes Google will send back the requests and ask police to narrow them to try to decrease the amount of user data that is provided.

The layoffs come as police and spy agencies around the world increasingly ask tech firms for user data. From January 2023 to June 2023, Google was asked to give up data on 110,945 user accounts in the United States, according to Google’s transparency report, which it releases every six months. It provided some information in 85 percent of those cases, the company said.

The amount of data Google provides to law enforcement agencies has been steadily increasing over the past decade. In the early 2010s, the company fielded fewer requests each year. But as police have grown more technologically savvy and Google has amassed more data, the number of requests has increased.

In the first half of 2023, the most recent period for which Google provides data, it received 211,201 requests for user information affecting 436,326 accounts from governments around the world. That’s an 85 percent increase in the number of affected accounts since the first half of 2020. In 2022, Google gave up information in about 80 percent of the requests, a number that has also been steadily increasing since the mid-2010s, according to the company’s data.

The Google lawyers and other employees who respond to law enforcement requests are a vital bulwark against government overreach, said Faiza Patel, senior director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and an expert on government surveillance.

“It’s a super important function,” Patel said. “The fact that they are reducing the team that is performing this function is a cause for concern.”

The reductions are in line with an overall trend across Big Tech companies to cut the number of people working on compliance and trust-and-safety issues, Patel said. “We’ve seen across the board that trust-and-safety-type teams and compliance teams are being cut by tech companies generally,” she said.

When Tesla owner Elon Musk bought social media site Twitter in 2022, many of the company’s trust-and-safety workers, who moderated violent and offensive content on the platform, were among the first people he fired. Last year, Meta fired workers in its policy, moderation and regulatory teams as part of the company’s mass layoffs.

Google and other tech companies have fired tens of thousands of workers over the past two years, as they cut back on staff they hired during the pandemic-era boom in tech spending. The explosion of interest in artificial intelligence has also pushed the companies to reallocate workers and investment money toward building out AI products.

Scrutiny of Google’s data-sharing with law enforcement agencies increased after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June 2022 and states passed laws making abortion illegal. Abortion advocates warned that police could ask Google and other tech platforms for the names of people who searched for abortion services or visited an abortion clinic.

The company responded by saying that it would automatically delete location data for people who visited health clinics. But months later, a review by The Washington Post found that the company still logged some location data for abortion clinic visits.

Google has said that saving location data is opt-in only, and in December 2023, the company said it would stop storing its users’ location data in its cloud servers, meaning that it wouldn’t be able to provide the locations to police even if they asked for it.

“Your location information is personal. We’re committed to keeping it safe, private and in your control,” Marlo McGriff, director of product for Google Maps, said in a blog post at the time.

The team also has to potentially deal with hackers posing as law enforcement officials trying to get access to Google user data, the person familiar with the team said. In 2022, cybersecurity expert Brian Krebs reported that hackers and scammers were using stolen police email accounts to try to trick Google and other tech platforms into giving them user data.

Google is also subject to a 2022 agreement it signed with the Justice Department to “reform and upgrade its legal process compliance program.” The agreement came after Google said it had lost some user data that the government had requested as part of a 2016 court case. A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not return a request for comment.

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