Google announced last year that it would only respond to requests for user data when submitted through the US Department of Justice. But that did not stop the company from transferring user information to the Hong Kong authorities, as it was an emergency.
From July to December last year, Google released data on three users, becoming the first American tech giant to comply with Hong Kong’s national security law passed by China last June. Google said it would only work through the US Justice Department. In just the second half of 2020, the company received 43 requests from the Hong Kong authorities, 3 of which were processed, despite Google’s promise. The search giant attributed this to extraordinary circumstances.
One of the requests was about a real threat to human life – while, according to the Hong Kong Free Press, Facebook in a similar situation last year refused. In the other two cases, the requests were related to a human trafficking investigation and had nothing to do with national security issues, so Google followed its own policy of dealing with government requests for user information. At the same time, the company clarified, the user content was not provided to the authorities – the company limited itself to metadata: name, email address, phone number, IP addresses, billing information and letter headers.
The company clarified that most requests from the Hong Kong authorities still need to be processed in accordance with diplomatic procedures, including when it comes to national security. It is Google’s policy that the company responds to requests for data in accordance with the requesting party’s laws and international regulations. In some cases, the person in respect of whom the request was made is informed about this.
Other US tech giants, including Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, have also announced a suspension of disclosure for the time it will take to analyze the document following the adoption of Hong Kong’s National Security Act. However, in the year before the law was passed, they actively cooperated, responding to hundreds of inquiries from the Hong Kong authorities. In particular, Apple provided data in 19-50% of cases, Microsoft went to cooperation on 60% of requests.