Facebook said Tuesday that it has received government requests for
information on more than 38,000 members worldwide -- and as many as 21,000 in
the United States -- in just the first six months of 2013.
The Menlo Park company released its first "transparency report" to "make sure that the people who use our service understand the nature and extent of the requests we receive and the strict policies and processes we have in place to handle them," Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch wrote in a blog post.
The transparency report, something companies like Twitter, Google and Microsoft have also released, comes as controversy continues to swirl over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's revelations of a secret U.S. government surveillance program named Prism.
Facebook, which has 1.2 billion monthly active members worldwide, said the "vast majority" of the requests for data involved criminal cases "such as robberies or kidnappings. In many of these cases, the government requests seek basic subscriber information, such as name and length of service." Other requests might seek Internet address logs or account content.
The largest number of requests came from U.S. agencies, which filed 11,000 to 12,000 criminal and national security requests related to 20,000 to 21,000 Facebook accounts. Stretch's post explained that the company is bound by law to report only the range of requests, but is pushing the government to allow it to reveal the exact number and types of requests related to national security.
Facebook said it had to divulge at least some of the information sought in 79 percent of the U.S. requests that were filed.
India filed the second-highest number of requests -- 3,245, related to 4,144 accounts. Facebook said it divulged information in 50 percent of those requests. The United Kingdom had 1,975 filings on 2,337 accounts, and Facebook had to produce some of the data in 68 percent of the requests.
By comparison, Twitter's latest transparency report for the first six months of the year showed a total of 1,157 government requests related to 1,697 accounts. Again, the largest number came from U.S. agencies, with 902 requests on 1,319 accounts.
"As we have made clear in recent weeks, we have stringent processes in place to handle all government data requests," Stretch wrote.
"We scrutinize each request for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and require a detailed description of the legal and factual bases for each request.
"We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests. When we are required to comply with a particular request, we frequently share only basic user information, such as name."
While London privacy-rights organization Privacy International praised Facebook for releasing the data, it questioned whether such transparency reports are useful.
"We are left with a disturbingly hollow feeling regarding Facebook's gesture, and it has little to do with Facebook itself," the organization said.
"Since documents leaked by Edward Snowden have been published and analyzed, the veil has been lifted on what information governments actually collect about us. We are now aware of a terrifying reality -- that governments don't necessarily need intermediaries like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to get our data. They can intercept it over undersea cables, through secret court orders, and through intelligence sharing."
The Center for Democracy and Technology of Washington, D.C., praised Facebook's inaugural transparency report.
"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," said Kevin Bankston, the organization's senior counsel.
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