There’s a lot to chew on in the just-released, previously secret transcript of a conversation between Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Google board chairman Eric Schmidt—the two talked about everything from Bitcoin to Assange’s “crazed” female visitors. (Though Schmidt acknowledged in his new book that he spoke with Assange, the full transcript of their conversation had not previously been released.)
But the weightiest matter the two addressed was US government requests for data on users. Authorized under the 2001 Patriot Act, these requests are sent by US law enforcement agencies to Google up to 999 times per year, as Google regularly notes in its Transparency Report, where they’re listed as “National Security Letters.” (Total law enforcement for user data requests, including those authorized under the Patriot Act, numbered 8,438 in 2012.)
The company can’t be more specific than that about the frequency and nature of the requests because sharing such information would be illegal. Schmidt made that explicit to Assange, as the transcript of their conversation reveals:
Assange: “We wouldn’t mind a leak from Google, which would be, I think probably all the Patriot Act requests.”
Schmidt: “Which would be [whispers:] illegal.”
Schmidt went on to explain that while he couldn’t give Assange or anyone else that data, it was certainly a problem he’d been thinking about due to his personal objections to provisions of the Patriot Act:
Schmidt: “I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time on this question. Because I am in great trouble because I have given a series of criticisms about Patriot 1 and Patriot 2 [referring to the 2001 law and the 2011 extension signed by President Barack Obama]. Because I think they’re … because they’re non transparent. You know, because the judge’s orders are hidden and so on. And the answer … the answer is that the laws are quite clear about Google and the US. We couldn’t do it. It would be illegal.”
Schmidt then told Assange he would pass along Assange’s request to Google’s lawyers, but then the two laughed, suggesting that they both knew the request was unlikely to come to anything.
Assange had a personal interest in seeing Google leak information about data requests from Federal authorities, since those authorities have been requesting that Twitter disclose to the names and locations of anyone using Twitter to communicate with WikiLeaks.
Since Assange and Schmidt’s conversation on June 23, 2011, Google has yet to release any information on requests from Federal law enforcement for user data, beyond the extremely vague range listed in its Transparency Report.