Google released a cute little explanation of where e-mails go once you hit send yesterday (http://www.google.com/green/storyofsend). It reminds us of the fact that so many of our daily activities now involve cross-border elements, even when we may not have left the confines of our homes or offices. This has significant implications for transnational crime and international legal cooperation, particularly mutual legal assistance.
Banks and telecommunications companies are accustomed to the demands of assisting law enforcement authorities. Bank account details and telephone call charge records are often important pieces of evidence and responding to search warrants is a routine part of doing business in these sectors. Not infrequently, these requests may relate to foreign law enforcement purposes.
In the last fifteen years, e-mail providers have also been brought into the mix, with increasing numbers of requests being made for user details and the content of e-mail accounts. Social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter were the next businesses to be drawn into the mix. Now, with the exponential growth in cloud computing, more and more businesses will find themselves confronted with search warrants relating to their users’ accounts.
Although many of these companies’ users may never set foot in the country in which the company is based, their e-mails, status updates and online documents are stored remotely by that company. In many cases, this means that evidence of a crime that was committed in one country is contained in another, otherwise unrelated, country. This means that many online providers are inundated with large numbers of requests for user information on behalf of foreign governments through the mutual legal assistance process.
The Google Transparency Report gives an indication of the scale of this issue. In the first six months of 2011, Google responded to requests from foreign countries relating to over 14,000 user accounts. In the same period, the number of domestic requests was just under 6,000. Now that Google is making a full scale tilt at the consumer cloud market with their Google Drive offering, it seems likely that their workload will continue to soar. Mind you, as one of the larger, more well-established players in this area, Google is comparatively well-placed to deal with the demands of domestic and international law enforcement cooperation. As smaller companies are entering the consumer cloud area, it seems likely that they will face a sharp learning curve in the MLA and law enforcement cooperation process!