* Web firms' data proves irresistible to law enforcers
* Demands to hand over user data have become routine
* U.S. operators receive estimated 300,000 requests a year
* Operators under pressure to collect data they don't need
By Georgina Prodhan
NAIROBI, Sept 30 Internet companies such as
Google, Twitter and Facebook are increasingly co-opted for
surveillance work as the information they gather proves
irresistible to law enforcement agencies, Web experts said this
Although such companies try to keep their users' information
private, their business models depend on exploiting it to sell
targeted advertising, and when governments demand they hand it
over, they have little choice but to comply.
Suggestions that BlackBerry maker RIM might give
user data to British police after its messenger service was used
to coordinate riots this summer caused outrage -- as has the
spying on social media users by more oppressive governments.
But the vast amount of personal information that companies
like Google collect to run their businesses run has
become simply too valuable for police and governments to ignore,
delegates to the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi said.
"When the possibility exists for information to be obtained
that wasn't possible before, it's entirely understandable that
law enforcement is interested," Google's Chief Internet
Evangelist Vint Cerf told Reuters in an interview.
"Then the issue would be, what's the right policy? And that,
or course, engenders a lot of debate," said Cerf, who is
recognised as one of the "fathers of the Internet" for his early
work in areas including communications protocols and email.
Demands from governments for Internet companies to hand over
user information have become routine, according to online
privacy researcher and activist Christopher Soghoian, who makes
extensive use of freedom-of-information requests in his work.
"Every decent-sized U.S. telecoms and Internet company has a
team that does nothing but respond to requests for information,"
Soghoian told Reuters in an interview.
Soghoian estimates that U.S. Internet and telecoms companies
may receive about 300,000 such requests in connection with law
enforcement each year -- but public information is scarce.
While U.S. courts are obliged to publish reports on
wire-tapping of telephone lines, no similar information is
required to be made public with respect to the Internet -- which
grew up after the laws on electronic communications were passed.
Google does voluntarily publish a transparency report every
six months in which it details the number of requests it
receives from governments around the world to remove content
from its services or hand over user data.
But the numbers do not reveal how many users are affected by
each request -- only trends country by country
Some governments are requiring Internet companies to collect
more data and keep it for longer, said Katarzyna Szymielewicz,
executive director of Poland's Panoptykon Foundation, which
campaigns for human rights in light of modern surveillance.
"Government agencies throughout the world are pushing
companies to collect even more data than is needed for their
business purposes," she told the conference.
"For example, we have a very controversial data retention
regime which is currently under review. This requires people to
store data for a period up to two years so it can easily be
accessed by law enforcement agencies."
The ease and cost of surveillance are at an all-time low,
Soghoian said, with Google charging an administrative fee of $25
to hand over data, Yahoo charging $20, and Microsoft
and Facebook providing data for free.
"Now, one police officer from the comfort of their desk can
track 20, 30, 50 people all through Web interfaces provided by
mobile companies and cloud computing companies," he said.
"The marginal cost of surveilling one more person is now
essentially approaching zero."
(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Will Waterman)