Facebook: U.S. tops other governments in demanding data on users

Governments in 74 countries demanded information on about 38,000 Facebook users in the first half of 2013. More than half of the demands came from the United States, the Menlo Park, Calif., company said.
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)

SAN FRANCISCO -- You can thank former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden for a new report from Facebook on the inquiries it gets from governments around the world for information on its more than 1 billion users.

According to the giant social network, governments in 74 countries sought information on more than 38,000 Facebook users in the first half of 2013. More than half of those requests came from the United States -- about 20,000 to 21,000 -- and Facebook said it produced some data in response to 80% of those requests.

Facebook said it required governments to meet a “very high legal bar” to receive the information.

“We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests,” Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said Tuesday. “When we are required to comply with a particular request, we frequently share only basic user information, such as name.”


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Facebook said it would publish information on data requests on a regular basis. Google, Twitter and Microsoft have released similar information for years.

The Facebook report is the result of allegations made by Snowden that nearly every major Internet company, including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, hands over the personal information of users to national intelligence agencies.

The extent of the National Security Agency’s electronic data collection remains unclear. Facebook’s report includes secret requests made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act. Facebook negotiated with the U.S. government to begin publishing the number of data requests it receives -- including national security requests -- as long as it does not specify how many of those requests are related to national security. In general, criminal matters are more common than national security matters.


Facebook, along with Google and other companies, is pressing Congress to be allowed to provide greater detail.

“We are happy to see Facebook issue its first global Government Requests Report and join the growing number of Internet companies that have recognized how important it is to be transparent about the scope of government demands for user data,” said Kevin Bankston, director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Free Expression. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and basic numbers about the scope of surveillance of Facebook users can serve as an important early warning system for detecting abuse or overuse of a government’s authority to demand user data.”

But, Bankston said, he’s disappointed that Facebook is still barred from disclosing the number of foreign intelligence and national security-related data demands it receives from the U.S. government.

“We would strongly prefer that Facebook report specific numbers about the different types of government requests that they receive, and we hope that the Obama administration and Congress will work together to ensure that companies like Facebook can soon engage in meaningful transparency reporting about the full range of government surveillance of Internet users,” Bankston said.


Facebook faces scrutiny on other fronts: as a key organizing tool of activists around the world. Facebook pushed back against requests from governments in Egypt and Turkey, according to the report. Egypt made eight requests for information on 11 users. Facebook did not comply with any of them. Authorities in Turkey -- where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called social media “the worst menace to society” -- made 96 requests for information on 173 users. Facebook complied in 47% of the cases. Facebook has denied turning over information on protesters of the Turkish government.

In India, authorities made 3,245 requests on 4,144 users, and Facebook complied in 50% of cases. In the United Kingdom, authorities asked for information on 2,337 users and Facebook complied in 68% of cases.


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