Google is now charging $245 for data search warrants

The fees could set new precedents in the ‘data-relationship’ between tech giants and authorities.
27 January 2020

NYPD officers on the streets of Manhattan. Source: Shutterstock

In the face of increasing demand for its users’ information, Google will begin charging law enforcement for access to user data this month. 

As reported by the New York Times, the tech giant said the introduction of fees would “offset the costs” of complying with subpoenas and search warrants related to its users. The company allegedly receives thousands of requests each year seeking access to data such as emails, location tracking information and search queries.

In a “Notice of Reimbursement” document sent to law enforcement officials, Google laid out its fees, which included $45 for subpoenas, $60 for wiretap orders, and $245 for search warrants.

While federal laws have previously allowed companies to charge reimbursement fees, The Times noted that these have been difficult to enforce at a large scale, while organizations may have shied away from charging because of the appearance that they’re intending to profit from assisting in crime prevention. 

Facebook doesn’t charge for requests. Microsoft and Twitter have said they are legally able to request imbursement, but have stated explicitly whether they charge for such requests. Telecommunications companies, including Verizon, have charged similar fees for some time. 

Google’s move could set a precedent for other large tech firms to follow suit, according to some privacy experts, and could mitigate the potential for “over surveillance” of the public. 

With 1.5 billion active users as of last year, Google has masses of information available on its users, including location history, web browsing data, personal cell phone numbers and places of work. In the first half of 2019, Google received more than 75,000 requests for data on nearly 165,000 accounts worldwide – a third of which came from US authorities. 

While charging for these requests would be “inconsequential” to the firm’s revenue overall, Al Gidari, a lawyer representing Google, said the fees would help counter requests which have become more complex as tech companies acquire more data and law enforcement becomes more technologically-advanced. 

For example, Google has seen a rapid increase in requests for geofence searches, which tap into Google’s Sensorvault database to provide information on a user’s locations based on data from their devices. These searches can reveal information on hundreds of other devices, and therefore require much more rigorous legal processes.

“None of the services were designed with exfiltrating data for law enforcement in mind,” said Gidari.

“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,” he said.

According to Google’s own reports, the firm received a 50 percent year-on-year rise in the  number of search warrants received in the first half of 2019. From January to June last year, the company received nearly 13,000 subpoenas and over 10,000 search warrants from authorities in the US.

While Google has said it won’t ask for reimbursement in cases such as child safety investigations or life-threatening emergencies, law enforcement officials told the Times it was too early to know the impact of the decision. 

A Senior Prosecutor in Washington State said the fees could hamper the work of smaller agencies, with officers required to make decisions to issue warrants “based on their budgets.” 

He added, however, that charging for access may encourage Google to expedite requests.