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User data requests show steady growth in government surveillance

Data is big business. You may think you are safe when browsing, but your online activity can be interesting to many different parties.

With the rise of smartphones and internet availability, the government has been requesting more and more user data from big tech companies. Such information can include specific user information from IP addresses to locations of devices.

The User Data Surveillance Report carried out by Surfshark has analyzed user data requests that Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft received from 66 countries between 2013 and 2020. Here is an overview of their insights and what the data showed.

Government surveillance grows
Top 10 most surveilled countries

Europe is a hot spot for requests. Seven out of the top ten countries with the highest number of user data requests per 100,000 people are in the European Union. The other three spots span the globe, with the US, Australia, and Singapore filling the gaps.

While Malta has a significantly lower total number of requests, they claim the top spot due to their comparatively low population.

Requests for user data around the world (map)
US vs. EU user data requests

If you have ever wondered if the US government is interested in what their citizens do on the internet, then it's time to stop wondering. The US authorities are exceptionally interested in what people do online, and they're not afraid to ask for their data.
  • The number of requests per 100k in the EU: 177
  • The number of requests per 100k in the US: 334
7 out of 10 European countries make up the top 10 request slots. However, all of them combined amount to less than half the number of requests from the US government.

The US authorities are exceptionally interested in what people do online
User data requests are rising

The trend is clear – the number of user data requests is rising. User data requests made by the authorities per 100,000 people a year increased a whopping three times from 2013 to 2019. The prediction for 2020–2025 demonstrates that this upward trend shows no sign of flattening out.

Companies disclose more than 50% of all user requests

User surveillance is on the rise
Across the four different companies examined in the study, the average percentage of fully or partially disclosed requests for data ranged from 55% to 76%. Let’s take a look at how the big four played out.

Google

Company-level case studies - Google
Google was a consistent leader in the overall number of disclosed requests for user data since 2013. Location-based search queries and Android device tracking made up more than 70% of Google's disclosures in 2019, demonstrating that mobile searches are an increasingly important part of where the government is looking to learn and gain insights from.

Facebook

Company-level case studies - Facebook
Facebook was also a leader in disclosing information related to their users' privacy concerns and could overtake Google if their trend continues. It received more than 2 million requests for user information from governments and law enforcement agencies worldwide in 2018. The US government took a huge chunk of those requests.

Apple

From 2013 to 2019 Apple received a total of 31,903 data requests from the US government. That’s less than one-tenth of the amount Facebook got in 2018 alone. They are often noted for their noncompliance with government requests.

Percentage of partially or fully disclosed requests for user data, Apple 2013-2019
And while Apple received the lowest number of user data requests out of all four companies, it still complied with over 55% of them. So, as an Apple user, you may think your data is safe. But in reality, if the government asks, you still have a one in two chance of them handing over your details.

Microsoft

Microsoft has cooperated with the government and courts when required to do so. The company's transparency reports provide insight into requests for user information in specific countries. This includes all legal requests for data worldwide and both voluntary and mandatory disclosures under local laws.

User data requests show steady growth in government surveillance
While the other three big companies have experienced steady growth in the number of disclosed requests for user information throughout the period, Microsoft has been the only one that has seen a decline since 2015.

Government surveillance is growing

As stated earlier, the global number of user data requests made per 100,000 people per year by authorities increased three times over six years from 2013 to 2019.

User Data Surveillance Report

Bear in mind that these figures do not represent the full scale of government surveillance activities. It only examines the mentioned four big tech companies that collect a lot of user information. Hence the full scope of the problem remains unknown. However, the trend is clear - government surveillance is growing year to year.

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