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Layoffs at Google hit workers who verify police requests for user data

SAN FRANCISCO – Google has cut a group of employees from the team tasked with ensuring that government requests for its users’ private data are legitimate and legal. This is raising concerns among employees and privacy experts that the company is weakening its ability to protect customer data.

Google fired 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 forcing them to resign, according to a person familiar with the matter. team activities. the layoffs. A Google spokesperson said the team consists of nearly 150 people.

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

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

In addition to responding to subpoenas and search warrants for user data, the team also handles emergency requests from law enforcement for people’s locations when they are in crisis or threatening immediate violence, such as in the case of school shootings, the person known is with the said the team.

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The Alphabet Workers Union, a group representing some Google employees and contractors, said in a statement late last month that the cuts would only worsen the existing staff shortages in the team.

Before the cuts, the Legal Investigations Support team was already struggling to handle the sheer volume of government requests it was responsible for, the person familiar with the team’s operations said. Members of the team develop policies on how to respond to requests and review individual requests themselves to ensure they are legal, the person said. Sometimes Google returns the requests and asks law enforcement to refine them to try to reduce the amount of user data provided.

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

The amount of data Google provides to law enforcement agencies has steadily increased over the past decade. Beginning in 2010, the company was receiving fewer requests every year. But as police have become more technologically savvy and Google has collected 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 related to 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 provided information in about 80 percent of requests, a number that has also steadily increased since the mid-2010s, according to the company details.

The Google lawyers and other employees who respond to law enforcement requests are a vital bulwark against government surveillance, 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 position,” Patel said. “The fact that they are reducing the team that fills this position is a cause for concern.”

The reductions are in line with a general trend among Big Tech companies to reduce the number of people dealing with compliance and trust and security issues, Patel said. “We’ve seen across the board trust and security teams and compliance teams being cut by technology companies in general,” she says.

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

Google and other tech companies have laid off tens of thousands of workers over the past two years as they cut back on the staff they hired during the pandemic’s technology spending boom. The explosion of interest in artificial intelligence has also prompted companies to reallocate employees and investment dollars to developing AI products.

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

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

Google has said that storing location data is opt-in only, and in December 2023 the company said it would stop storing its users’ location data on its cloud servers, meaning it wouldn’t even give the locations to law enforcement can provide. if they asked.

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

The team may also be dealing with hackers posing as law enforcement officials and trying to access 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 trick Google and other tech platforms into giving them user data.

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