Mindful of the privacy fears that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about government snooping have raised, Facebook on Tuesday moved to reassure its 1.15 billion active monthly global users that their personal information had not been compromised.
Facebook’s first ‘Transparency Report’, shows that in the first six months of 2013, till June 30, the U.S. government made a total of only 10,854 requests for Facebook user data, involving a total of 17,061 users, of which Facebook released some data in 78% of the cases. In effect, the U.S. government received user information on merely 8,466 requests.
Though Facebook is amongst the most dominant social media firms, its report does not convey the full extent to which the U.S. government would have sought user data. However, going by Facebook’s market share, the overall numbers would still seem to be in thousands where actual sharing of user information is concerned. The Facebook report obviously cannot comment on the overall metadata numbers, given the proliferation of service providers from where such numbers may have been ascertained.
The data, pertaining to roughly 74 countries, reveals that the Indian government made the third highest number of requests for user data in the world after the U.S. and Turkey, accounting for a total of 3,246 requests involving 4,177 of Facebook’s 82 million active monthly users. However, Facebook offered some data in only 47% cases — 1,526 requests.
Pakistan, on the other hand, only made a total of 35 requests pertaining to 47 users, of which Facebook complied with some in data in 74% of these cases.
According to the report, though most requests relate to criminal investigations such as robberies or kidnappings, Facebook has put in place a strict process to deal with all government requests to protect users’ data, while ensuring governments meet a high legal bar. Explaining the process, it said, “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 the request. We frequently push back and fight many of these requests, and are often successful in narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests. In every instance, we only share user information when we are required to do so by law”.
Given these stringent parameters, Facebook’s lower compliance with the Indian government’s demands is usually on account of requests that are seen to restrict freedom of speech issues, in some due to legal defects, and in others where Indian Law Enforcement Agencies may have used very broad language while being unable to identify the URLs and users. In some cases, the user was not located in India. The government, however, has been critical of global Internet and social media companies for not complying with their requests in the same proportion as that of the U.S. While the numbers verify this claim, the reasons for the difference are only anecdotal since neither the government nor Facebook has made those public.
This first transparency report deals only with user data demands by various global government agencies and not with takedown requests. The aggregate numbers of all user data requests received for all countries including user data requests received under the category of “national security” have been released. The U.S. data also includes this criteria in the aggregate numbers released. Data on all countries has been released even where these numbers are very small. Typically, the industry trend is that platforms like Google, Twitter and others release data only if the volume of demands by individual countries is above a particular threshold, say 10 requests, 30 requests, etc.
According to Facebook, the release of the Transparency Report addresses growing global interest in how Facebook handles requests for user data from governments following the recent U.S. Prism program exposes.
It further attempts to address “inaccurate or misleading reports about the standards and processes Facebook uses to handle government requests”.