Indeed, all Google reveals is that it received between zero and 999 NSLs each year since 2009, and the requests related to between 1,000 and 1,999 users or account in 2009, 2011, and 2012 -- and between 2,000 and 2,999 users or accounts in 2010. Why Google included zero in the ranges is curious, considering there had to be at least one NSL request per year if there was a minimum of 1,000 or 2,000 affected accounts per year.
The data doesn't tell much of a story, beyond the fact that 2010 was a record year for NSL requests insofar as how many accounts or users the FBI wanted to investigate. We don't know if the number of NSL requests in general have gone up for down, what the FBI was requesting, or whether the NSLs ended up yielding any actionable information to capture bad guys.
Google disclosed some information about how it handles NSLs. "When we receive these requests, we scrutinize them carefully to ensure they satisfy the law and our policies; seek to narrow requests that are overly broad; notify users when appropriate so they can contact the entity requesting the information or consult a lawyer; and require that government agencies use a search warrant if they're seeking search query information or private content, like Gmail and documents, stored in a Google Account," wrote Salgado.
Though the NSL data is arguably of limited use, Google's disclosure yields a couple of benefits. First, it's a reminder to privacy advocates that NSLs exist and continue to be used -- and it's a possible wake-up call to those who've never heard of NSLs or didn't realize NSLs could be used to snag user data from Google.
Second, it could mark a critical step toward greater visibility as to how the government and enforcement agencies are collecting and using citizens' online information.
Also, it gives Google a chance to puff up its chest and boast about how important it considers its users' privacy. Critics of the company may scoff at that notion, but at least the company does a credible job in revealing data on requests from governmental agencies and courts every six months in its Transparency Reports.
This article, "How the FBI uses the Patriot Act to get info on Google users," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.