Now you know: The FBI does indeed seek Google's help in matters of national security.
Until now, information about FBI requests to Google for user data has been strictly off-limits. But this week, Google added what are known as FBI National Security Letters (NSLs) to its "transparency report" about user information requests from other law enforcement agencies, as well as from the government.
The official requests are used by the FBI only in cases involving international terrorism or foreign intelligence/counterintelligence, are approved only by a senior FBI official (no court approval is necessary) and may require absolute secrecy on the part of Google or any other Internet company if the FBI determines that disclosure would endanger national security.
However, the information that can be requested through an NSL is pretty limited. Under law, the FBI can seek “the name, address, length of service, and local and long distance toll billing records." An NSL cannot be used to ask for IP addresses, search history, YouTube videos watched or the content of Gmail messages, Google said on its transparency report site.
Because organizations such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center have voiced concerns that the FBI has increased its requests in the years following 9/11, Google has been trying to provide more information about NSLs that it receives.
The data that the FBI has allowed Google to share does not support or dispute that claim. Google shows only a numeric range of NSLs it received from 2009 through 2012. Google shows a range of 0 to 999 for each year. The only data point that stands out in the report is more Google accounts were affected by NSLs in 2010 (2,000 to 2,999) than in any other covered year (1,000 to 1,999).
However, FBI reports filed to Congress show a dramatic decrease in the use of NSLs in 2011 compared with 2010. (Figures for 2012 are not yet available.) In 2011, the FBI made 16,511 NSL requests for information pertaining to 7,201 different U.S. users. This is a 32 percent decrease from the 24,287 national security letter requests concerning 14,212 U.S. users in 2010.
Google said it plans to update the FBI figures each year.