Facebook Sees Surge In Government Requests For User Data

Facebook's latest Global Government Requests Report shows that worldwide government requests for data and the number of pieces of content restricted continue to rise.

Larry Loeb, Blogger, Informationweek

November 12, 2015

4 Min Read
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The number of worldwide government demands for Facebook user data in the first half of 2015 surged -- with those of the US topping the list, according to the social media giant's Global Government Requests Report released this week. The report also revealed that the amount of content restricted for violating local law substantially increased as well.

In a statement about the report, Facebook said that the number of government requests for account data was up 18% -- from 35,051 requests in the second half of 2014 to 41,214 in the first half of 2015. In the same time period, the number of pieces of content restricted went up 112% -- from 9,707 in the second half of 2014 to 20,568 in the first half of 2015.

The US was highest on the list with the most aggregate requests for information of all countries (17,557, referencing 26,579 user accounts). Facebook said it was able to comply with some data in 79.85% of the requests.

The second place for aggregate government requests was India. The country had 5,515 requests covering 6,268 accounts.

India also had the distinction of being responsible for the most content taken down for violating local laws with 15,155 pieces of content restricted. The US had zero requests for content restrictions.

"We restricted access in India to content reported primarily by law enforcement agencies and the India Computer Emergency Response Team within the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology because it was anti-religious and hate speech that could cause unrest and disharmony within India," Facebook said in the report.

Interestingly, China had zero governmental requests for information and only five requests for contact blocking.

In addition to providing a country-by-country breakdown of the data, the company lists the types of requests made. Of the total requests made by US law enforcement requests, search warrants claimed the highest request number at 9,737, referencing 15,013 accounts, followed by subpoenas for non-content information at 5,375, referencing 8,475 accounts.

Disclosure of real-time information under court order occurring on Facebook was fairly limited in the US. "Pen Register/Trap and Trace" requests numbered 1,066, covering 1,315 accounts.

Facebook said it has been putting out this report for the past two years to bring some transparency to a process that it must comply with. 

"We're publishing this information about requests related to our various products and services (including Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram) because we want people to understand the nature and extent of these requests and the strict policies and processes we have in place to handle them," the company posted on its site.

Requests for data appear to be the most common. "The vast majority of these requests relate to criminal cases, such as robberies or kidnappings," according to Facebook. "In many of these cases, the government is requesting basic subscriber information, such as name and length of service. Requests may also ask for IP address logs or account content."

So, the company will basically give up anything you post on Facebook, along with who you are, and your IP address, when a government asks.

However, Facebook deputy general counsel Chris Sonderby notes in a blog post:

As we have emphasized before, Facebook does not provide any government with "back doors" or direct access to people's data. We scrutinize each request we receive for legal sufficiency, whether from an authority in the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere. If a request appears to be deficient or overly broad, we push back hard and will fight in court, if necessary.

[Read Global Data Collection Presents Big Challenges.]

The company said on its page relating to US government data requests that, by law, it cannot detail the number of requests from intelligence agencies as it does law enforcement requests. Instead it reports those numbers in ranges of 1,000. The company also noted that it must delay the release of data relating to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests. Facebook received between 0 and 999 national security requests in the first six months of 2015, according to the report.

As you look at this report, it's natural to grow concerned about the state of government surveillance, especially in the wake of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. But it should be noted that the total of the global requests for information to the company in the first half of this year was 41,214 -- a small fraction of the more than 1 billion average daily users of Facebook.

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About the Author(s)

Larry Loeb

Blogger, Informationweek

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek. He has written a book on the Secure Electronic Transaction Internet protocol. His latest book has the commercially obligatory title of Hack Proofing XML. He's been online since uucp "bang" addressing (where the world existed relative to !decvax), serving as editor of the Macintosh Exchange on BIX and the VARBusiness Exchange. His first Mac had 128 KB of memory, which was a big step up from his first 1130, which had 4 KB, as did his first 1401. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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