Internet firms like Twitter and Google have started releasing transparency reports in the last few years, sharing with the public some information about requests they get from governments to hand over private details about specific users or accounts.
Facebook joined in today, issuing the first of what it says will be regular transparency reports, this one covering the first six months of 2013.
In total, 74 countries sought data from Facebook for about 38,000 total users—
a pretty staggering number considering that it comprises 3% of the network’s total 1.15 billion users as of June [editor's note: Due to a, er, calculation error, this number was grossly inflated. It's .003%] (though governments were not successful at obtaining the information they sought all of these cases). In fact, as Forbes notes, Facebook was actually less likely to hand over user data than Google (79% of the time compared to 88% over similar periods), according to both companies’ self-reported statistics.
By a large amount, the United States leads in asking and getting Facebook to hand over user data, making more than 11,000 requests about 20,000 individual users. This is unsurprising, both because Facebook has the largest portion of its users in the U.S. and also given the recent revelations about the extent of national security agencies’ desire to watch over U.S. citizens. In second and third are India and the United Kingdom, and the list drops off pretty quickly after that.
- Requests for Facebook data made from Jan to June 2013 (some requests include multiple users):
- United States (11,000-12,000 requests, 79% success)
- India (3,245 requests, 50% success)
- United Kingdom (1,975 requests, 68%success)
- Germany (1,886 requests, 37% success)
- Italy (1,705 requests, 53% success)
- France (1,574 requests, 39% success)
- Brazil (715 requests, 33% success)
- Australia (546 requests, 64% success)
- Spain (479 requests, 51% success)
- Poland (233 requests, 9% success)
The report offers a glimpse of transparency, but it also leaves as many questions. For example, Facebook did not break down data about which requests were made for security reasons, such as when the federal government issues one of its controversial "national security letters," and which for criminal investigations, like in cases that police have a subpoena. Nor does it detail the kinds of information requested and provided, which in at least some cases can include name, credit card information, IP address or actual account content.
Currently, technology companies that collect user data are limited by U.S. law about how much detail they can reveal, though advocacy groups and the firms themselves are pressing for changes that allow more detailed disclosure. Certainly, far greater transparency is one widely acknowledged remedy to potential abuses rife within the National Security Agency programs revealed by leaker Edward Snowden.
"Government transparency and public safety are not mutually exclusive ideals. Each can exist simultaneously in free and open societies, and they help make us stronger," wrote Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch in releasing the data.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation published a report, "Who Has Your Back?" earlier this year that grades 18 major companies that hold user data, like Facebook, Dropbox, Microsoft, Amazon, and Verizon, on how well they protect it from government meddling. Seven of the companies (with Facebook, now eight) publish transparency reports and seven tell users themselves when the government requests their data. Looks like the tech industry as a whole still has a ways to go, too.