Governments around the world are seeking an ever-increasing amount of user data from Facebook, with requests to the company up by 24 percent between the last half of 2013 and the first half of 2014. Facebook released its third-ever report on government data requests on Tuesday.
In the U.S, Facebook reported receiving 15,433 government requests for data associated with 23,667 users or accounts from January through June of this year. It added that it produced at least some data in 80.15 percent of those requests.
How many of those requests involved National Security Letters (NSLs), which are FBI subpoenas connected with intelligence or terrorism activities? Because it is "limited to reporting this data in bands of 1000," Facebook said those requests were in the 0 to 999 range.
NSLs a 'Free Speech Issue'
We reached out to Julia Horwitz, consumer protection counsel with the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, to learn more about the organization's stance on such data requests from government agencies.
Horwitz pointed to Twitter's announcement last month that it was filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice regarding its restrictions on what companies can disclose about National Security Letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders.
"Twitter has identified this as a free speech issue," Horwitz said. "We're not seeing this from Facebook."
Benjamin Lee, Twitter's vice president for legal issues, wrote last month in a blog post, "It's our belief that we are entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users' concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance -- including what types of legal process have not been received. We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges."
'Overly Broad Warrants'
Chris Sonderby, Facebook's deputy general counsel, said in a Tuesday blog post on the company's Web site that "we scrutinize every government request we receive for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and push back hard when we find deficiencies or are served with overly broad requests." He pointed to Facebook's recent challenge of a court order for bulk data about 381 accounts in connection with a federal investigation into disability benefits fraud, adding, "We've argued that these overly broad warrants violate the privacy rights of the people on Facebook and ignore constitutional safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures."
According to Facebook, "the vast majority" of government requests for data "relate to criminal cases, such as robberies or kidnappings. In many of these cases, these government requests seek basic subscriber information, such as name and length of service. Other requests have asked for IP address logs or actual account content."
Governments also submit requests to Facebook when seeking to restrict content they believe violates local laws. For example, Germany has laws against Holocaust denial, so may request that Facebook restrict such content for its residents. Facebook says it complies with such requests if a "thorough legal analysis" determines that content violates local laws.
During the first six months of this year, the U.S. held the No. 1 spot in number of government requests for Facebook user data. India came in second, with 4,559 requests, and Germany stood at No. 3 with 2,537 requests.