Systematic Government Access to Personal Data: A Comparative Analysis

Privacy and Security

Article Snapshot


Ronald D. Lee, Gregory Nojeim and Ira Rubinstein


in Bulk Collection: Systematic Government Access to Private-Sector Data, Fred H. Cate and James X. Dempsey, eds., Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 5-48


Worldwide, government demands for access to private-sector data are increasing. A survey of 13 countries shows that current laws that govern such access are inadequate, failing to safeguard against abuse. Many systematic surveillance programs are secret.

Policy Relevance

Transparency requirements for systematic government surveillance programs must be improved to allow public debate about such programs.

Main Points

  • Worldwide, government demands for access to data held by the private sector are increasing; these include demands for direct access to private-sector data bases or networks, or access mediated by private-sector entities.
    • In the United States, the National Security Agency (NSA) requires telecommunications carriers to disclose data about all calls handled by the carriers.
    • In India, the government’s Central Monitoring System allows real-time access to email, phone calls, and chats.
  • Firms much decide whether a governmental demand to access the firm’s data is lawful, and whether to disclose the demand to the public or to customers; in the United States, Israel, and other countries, the government’s interpretations of laws that authorize access are often secret.
  • Access for regulatory, law enforcement, and national security purposes is excluded from the coverage of most data protection laws.
    • China and India totally lack protection against police and national security access.
    • Notably, Japan and Brazil impose severe limits on foreign intelligence access.
  • Constitutional privacy protections do not effectively limit systemic government access to private sector data.
    • In the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled that citizens cannot expect data shared with “third parties” such as telephone companies to be kept private.
    • Germany and Israel have the strongest constitutional privacy rights, but even in these countries, secret surveillance is allowed.
  • National security access is even less regulated than law enforcement access; half the countries studied do not require court orders for national security access, or for foreign intelligence gathering.
  • Most laws that regulate government data usage were designed for investigations that target a particular crime, criminal, or certain messages; oversight mechanisms are especially insufficient for data shared voluntarily by private firms.
  • Most nations require access and surveillance requests to be reviewed by judges, senior government officials, or oversight bodies; however, formal oversight is often ineffective, little more than “privacy theater.”
  • Private-sector data includes data relating to citizens of other countries, and surveillance is carried out across borders, raising complex human rights, political, and jurisdictional issues that are rarely discussed.
  • The expansion of systematic government access to data has been carried out in extreme secrecy.


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