Facebook got 25,000 government requests about users

Nearly half of all government requests about Facebook users come from U.S. agencies

Facebook received more than 25,000 requests from governments about its users during the first half of 2013, with nearly half of those requests coming from U.S. law enforcement and related agencies, the company said.

U.S. agencies made 11,000 to 12,000 requests for Facebook user information during the first six months of the year, with the rest of the world's governments making about 14,600 requests, Facebook said in its first global government requests report, released Tuesday.

Other countries with high numbers of requests: India with 3,245, the U.K. with 1,975, Germany with 1,886, and Italy with 1,705.

The "vast majority" of the requests related to criminal cases, Colin Stretch, Facebook's general counsel, wrote in the report. In many cases, the requests seek basic subscriber information, such as name and length of membership, while in other cases, law enforcement officials seek IP addresses or account content, he wrote.

Facebook doesn't honor every request. In the U.S., Facebook provided some information in response to 79 percent of the requests, while in the U.K., it provided some information in 68 percent. The percentage was much lower for several countries. For example, Facebook provided information in response to just 27 percent of Argentina's 152 requests and 39 percent of France's 1,547 requests.

"We have stringent processes in place to handle all government data requests," Stretch wrote. "We believe this process protects the data of the people who use our service, and requires governments to meet a very high legal bar with each individual request in order to receive any information about any of our users. We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests."

Google and some other tech companies have released similar reports about government requests. Google began releasing a government data transparency report in 2009; in the second half of 2012, Google received more than 21,000 requests about its users.

Privacy International, a U.K.-based privacy group, applauded Facebook for releasing the numbers, but said recent leaks about data collection at the U.S. National Security Agency show that these kinds of transparency reports have limited use.

"We are left with a disturbingly hollow feeling regarding Facebook's gesture, and it has little to do with Facebook itself," the group said in a blog post. "Since [the NSA documents] have been published and analysed, the veil has been lifted on what information governments actually collect about us."

The Facebook report only details lawful data requests, the group said. "We are now aware of a terrifying reality -- that governments don't necessarily need intermediaries like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to get our data," it added. "They can intercept it over undersea cables, through secret court orders, and through intelligence sharing."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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