Social network services are increasingly being used in legal and criminal investigations. Google’s social networking site Orkut, which is immensely popular in Brazil, is no exception.
In 2006, I commented on Google’s decision to comply with a Brazilian court order to release data on Orkut users to help Brazilian authorities investigate use of the site related to racism, pedophilia and homophobia. Part of Google’s justification was that the data requested by Brazilian authorities was “relatively discrete — small and narrow.” They weren’t turning over massive amounts of general data, but specific bits of information in response to specific requests.
Then, in 2007, I pointed to reports that Google was taking further steps to cooperate with Brazilian authorities to help censor content and track down offenders on Orkut, providing the police access to an admin tool for deleting or blocking illegal content.
Now, the AP reports that Google has “handed over data stored by suspected pedophiles on its Orkut social networking site to Brazilian authorities, ceding to pressure to lift its confidentiality duty to its users.” Apparently there was pressure from a Brazilian senate commission to turn over the data, threatening Google with criminal and civil lawsuits if it did not comply with opening the restricted online photo albums of users under suspicion. Approximately 200 accused pedophiles are affected by this disclosure.
It is inclear whether Google simply folded under pressure of lawsuits and provided the information based on simple (if coercive) requests by the Brazilian government, or if there were legal warrants or subpoenas issues to obtain the data. If the latter, then Google had a choice as to whether to comply with a legal request or to fight it in court. They might have determined that a court battle wouldn’t succeed, and simply provided the data. If the former is true — that there were no legal demands or requirements to turn over the data and Google just did it to avoid potential civil suits — then Google is setting a troublesome precedent that it will maintain the confidentially of its users only so long as it won’t be sued.
But what concerns me most about this report is this passage:
Google representatives met with police, prosecutors and other officials late Wednesday in Sao Paulo to negotiate a wide-ranging deal that would see the US company systematically providing data on suspect Orkut users to Brazilian authorities.
What does “systematically providing data” mean? Will the Brazilian authorities have direct access to Google’s systems? Will a data file be routinely and “systematically “shared with the police? How will “suspect Orkut users” be defined and identified? Exactly what data will be shared? Will Google require warrants or subpoenas before “systematically” providing data on its users?
This needs further clarification.