Today Facebook did the world a service by detailing the number of data-collection requests it receives from various nations around the world, as well as the number of user accounts that are part of the inquiries. It also lists the percentage of requests that were honored.
The U.S. is by far the most active requester of Facebook user information. In the first half of 2013, the U.S. logged between 11,000 and 12,000 requests for Facebook user data, involving 20,000 to 21,000 accounts. That the U.S. came in first should not come as a surprise and instead merely confirms that the U.S. government is exactly as zealous about digging into the private digital information of global citizens as you thought. India, in second place, made 3,245 requests. The United Kingdom came in third with 1,975 requests, and fourth place went to Germany with 1,886 requests.
The data is not surprising — we knew that governments ask Facebook for user data and often get it. The United States, for example, had 79 percent of its requests honored by Facebook. Poland, with 233 requests, had only 9 percent answered.
Facebook, in its transparency, is working to exonerate itself as being complicit in government surveillance. Look, it’s trying to say, this is what is requested, and this is how we have handled it. The figures almost feel small: 25,000 requests from all governments? Well, perhaps. Key to remember in all of this is that U.S. law prevents discussion and disclosure of certain requests. So we now have a decent grok of what Facebook is allowed to tell us. The data point is nice, but hardly complete.
Keep in mind, if you take mental refuge in the figures at all, that this is merely one way that the U.S. government collects information on the digital activity of both its citizens and those abroad. It also collects huge sums of the Internet via telecom companies, and taps the fiber-optic lines that constitute the Internet’s passageways.
Why would the government have programs such as PRISM and make requests like those detailed above if it can tap the Internet? Because if it wants all the data on your account, it is far simpler to demand or extort a wrapped package of information from Facebook than it is to slowly collect the same data as you use your account. So, various systems are used to ensure that the government has whatever it wants, whenever it decides it necessary.
Final note: Some countries that are not known for their human rights records do not have many requests. Russia, for example, with its now institutionalized homophobia, made a single request of Facebook during the first half of 2013 (it was not granted). Does that mean that government data asks are not indicative of much at all? That they are merely randomized in their frequency?
I don’t think so. The “Five Eyes” group of nations that share signal intelligence (United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) had at least 100 requests in the first six months of the year. New Zealand and Canada included. That matters. It indicates that countries participating in mass surveillance do so in every way possible. I think that the number of requests helps us understand the zeal of these nations to look into private activity.
However, recall that this is merely legally disclosable requests for the first half of one year by one company. It will be interesting to compare these figures to what Facebook released in a year’s time.
Top Image Credit: zeevveez