What's That Cow Doing There? Google Animates Warrant Requests

This is not an April Fool’s Day joke. Google has Lego-ized the thorny, complex and controversial practice of government requesting user data for its investigations.

No Batman. No oversized Lego skyscrapers. No especially clever "Lego Movie"-style asides aimed at the adults in the crowd. But there appears to be a cow. I think it signifies Facebook.

Best to see this one for yourself. Half a million others already have.

The video "Way of a Warrant" outlines the process Google claims it follows upon receiving a government request for user information, with a clear tilt towards user protection. The video dramatizes a small army of internal barriers between the government and your data, including screeners who prioritize requests, and  producers who actually negotiate with the government to narrow requests and determine what information to provide.

The iconography of the narrative is worth exploring on its own. The process is depicted as a board game -- looks like the game of Life to me. The government is represented at best by a Blues Brother, at worst one of the Men in Black. Our main Google rep is a woman with sensible hair in pink. Yeah -- Mom.

The process is depicted as one fraught with potential error, everything from illegible requests for the wrong person to overly broad queries for all of a user’s data when the purported violation is relevant to only a slice of time or information.  The gameboard motif of course neutralizes sinister tones by reducing privacy threats and government overreaching to Gumby-style alligators and circling shark fins.

Also missing from this cartoon version of government data warrants is how many of the requests Google get are handled with this level of interaction and critical scrutiny. The company says that government warrants have increased steadily to about 28,000 requests in the past year, involving more than 42,000 accounts. The share of warrants that have resulted in data actually given to investigators has declined slightly, from 75% in 2010 to 64% in 2013, suggesting without actually demonstrating that Google is pushing back more aggressively on requests. A country-by-country breakdown shows the U.S. has the highest percentage of data produced to requests  (83%) than anywhere else in the world, and that our country is responsible for more than a third of worldwide requests. Google is either considerably more deferential to U.S. investigators or much less successful in challenging its requests.

"Way of a Warrant," the Lego version, is a quaint attempt by Google to get ahead of the next branding challenge: data governance. As even this cartoon version suggests, the tension among government/legal interests, private companies, and the protection of civil liberty and unfair search and seizure puts the digital media company in the middle. Or is it the consumer/citizen stuck in limbo? I come out of this video feeling as if two institutions are bartering over my data with little to no input from me, aside from being notified of the process. It's entirely unclear to me that either my government or my Google are invested in protecting me -- so much as protecting themselves. 

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