Google reportedly handed over some user data to the government of Hong Kong last year, despite it pledging not to do so.
According to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), Google confirmed to it that it had “produced some data” in response to three of the 43 requests it had received from Hong Kong’s government.
This was despite Google confirming in August 2020 that it had stopped responding to data requests from the Hong Kong government.
The move was a direct consequence for China for it forcing through a draconian security law in Hong Kong, which the British government said violated its Joint Declaration agreement between the two countries.
The new law included a possible sentence of life in prison for people found guilty of subversion.
China often uses subversion charges to detain political protesters and dissidents in the Chinese mainland.
Indeed, such was the concern the British government provided Hong Kong citizens who have a British overseas passport, with eligibility for a route to full British citizenship.
Many countries, including the UK, EU and United States also widely condemned China for the law which they said violated the “one country, two systems” framework agreed when the UK handed back the territory to China in 1997.
Facebook and Twitter announced in July 2020 they had stopped processing requests for user data made by Hong Kong law enforcement authorities.
Apple and Microsoft also said at the time that they had paused handling requests for user data emanating from the Hong Kong government.
A month later in August 2020 Google said it had also stopped responding to data requests from the Hong Kong government.
Indeed, Google said at the time that it had not produced any data since the new law took force in June 2020 and would not directly respond to such requests henceforth.
Instead, Google told Hong Kong police they could only pursue any data requests through a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the United States, which involves routing the request via the US Justice Department – a much slower process.
Despite this commitment, Google has reportedly handed over some users’ data to Hong Kong authorities in 2020.
The Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) reported that out of 43 requests, Google handed over data in three cases.
Two of the requests had to do with investigations into human trafficking and included search warrants, and a third was an emergency disclosure as part of a credible threat to someone’s life, HKFP reported.
Google reportedly told HKFP that none of the three responses included users’ content data.
Google admission is surprising, considering the three times it did respond did not come via the US Department of Justice method.
The HKFP noted that Facebook’s transparency report published this June this year stated that it rejected all 202 requests from the Hong Kong authorities for user information in the latter half of 2020, including an emergency request.
Twitter also did not respond to one request from the Hong Kong government during this time.
Apple and Microsoft have not yet published their transparency reports for this period.