Is Facebook really 'the most appalling spying machine'?

WikiLeaks Julian Assange has accused Facebook (and others) of offering back-door access to US spy agencies. The truth is just a bit less dramatic. UPDATE: Facebook responds.


True, Facebook is large. Comprehensive? Not so much. If anything, it’s extremely incomplete and deeply unreliable. (Think about it: Are all the people in your Friends list really your friends? Do you tell the truth all the time? Is that your real age?)

That bit about Facebook, Google, Yahoo et al having a ‘special interface’ just for US spy agencies, no subpoena needed? I think Julian’s been huffing the Reddi-Wip again. It’s highly doubtful any of these organizations would just hand over non-publically-available data without some kind of legal writ – a subpoena, search warrant, National Security Letter, etc – let alone build their own little back door for spies to use. Imagine the outcry if that were true.

In fact, this is what the Facebook legal guidelines are all about – how to legally request such information, on a case by case basis, which Facebook then provides. Not an automated process, not one-stop shopping for spies.

In fact, Facebook creates one of these guidelines every year (you can see the previous versions at PublicIntelligence as well.) So do Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Twitter, and so on. Any big tech company that collects information and has a legal department will have confidential written procedures about how to handle information requests from legal authorities. If you’ve ever read any real privacy policy (and I have read too many of them) you’ll always see the exception that allows them to share your data with the authorities when required by law.

What’s interesting about Facebook’s 2010 Guidelines? A few things.

* Generally speaking, Facebook can produce 90 days’ worth of data on every person. That includes your contact info, news feed, status updates, notes, wall posts, friends list, groups list, any events you’d said you’d attend, photos you’ve posted, photos where others have tagged you, and a list of the videos you’ve posted. 

Facebook may also be able to retrieve any private messages you haven’t deleted, and can go back even further than 90 days, if needed, but that apparently requires more effort.

* Facebook makes no guarantees about being able to retrieve IP logs or at least complete records of IP logs. So if the cops want to know every single time and place you logged into Facebook, they’re probably out of luck.

* Facebook asks law enforcement for a scosh more documentation with each request (ie, badge numbers) than it used to. And it notes that if law enforcement authorities identify a fake Facebook account, or one that otherwise violates Facebook’s terms and conditions, they will nuke that account unless specifically requested otherwise.

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