Facebook Search Warrant Disclosure Reveals Scope of Government Requests

Facebook announced Thursday it’s been pushing back against a bulk set of search warrants requesting private data from its user accounts since last summer.

In a blog post, the social media network announced a court in New York requested personal data for 381 users, including photos and private messages. The company argued the request was unconstitutional, but the courts prevailed and the information was turned over.

This information is just coming to light now as Facebook filed an appellate brief Friday in an attempt to force the government to return the data it had seized and retained. Facebook says the government responded by moving to unseal the warrants and all court proceedings, allowing the company to notify the users their information had been taken.

Only 62 of the 381 people who were subjected to the searches later had charges brought against them in a disability fraud case. The government still has the data from more than 300 affected users who were never charged.

But the most surprising revelation made by Facebook in its announcement today is that the bulk warrant request is one of the largest it has ever received. The post said it “by far the largest we’ve ever received — by a magnitude of more than ten.” That means the bulk search warrant requests Facebook has responded to in the past have never affected more than 38 people.

Chris Sonderby, Facebook’s deputy general counsel, tells me in his four years with the company, the largest search warrant request he had seen before this one had been for about 30 people. Facebook then appealed that request, and the size of the request was then narrowed down to just one person.

Sonderby also said Facebook “scrutinizes” all government requests it receives. He said these requests were also unusual because they asked for almost all of the users’ information. He said requests differ on a case by case basis, but Facebook often is able to get the government to limit its request to specific information or a certain time period. Facebook was unsuccessful in limiting the size of the request or the amount of data in this case, he said.

Facebook users have repeatedly questioned the amount their personal data is subjected to government searches without their knowledge. Although the company now provides a report of government requests to the public, it initially dragged its feet on making such disclosures.

Thursday’s revelation applies only to search warrants, typically used by law enforcement authorities like police. According to a Facebook’s transparency report, between July and December 2013 in the United States the company responded to a total of 5,814 search warrant requests that affected 9,122 users. The company reports data was produced in 84.81 percent of these cases.

Although Facebook was able to get the gag order lifted this time and reveal this large search, it still faces strict limits in disclosing requests the government makes for national security purposes through the FISA courts. These are the types of requests that came under scrutiny in the wake of former government contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Due to federal laws, the company is required to disclose the number of FISA orders it receives in increments of one thousand. It also requires Facebook to wait six months for disclosing those numbers, so the most recent data currently available is from January to June 2013.

During this time, Facebook received fewer than 1,000 FISA content requests that affected between 5,000 and 5,999 users. Those are broad ranges that don’t give the average Facebook user a good idea of how many people are actually affected by these requests.

Facebook provided a timeline of the legal motions it filed in court, and it’s clear that the company tried very hard to not disclose its users data. The request first came in July, and Facebook pushed back until December when it had to comply with the order in the face of potential criminal penalties. The company continued to fight for its customers until June, when the government finally allowed it to notify them.

In its post Facebook noted “there is still more work to do” as government requests should be “narrowly tailored, proportionate to the case, and subject to strict judicial oversight.”

Just as Facebook has more work to do when it comes to pushing the government to return the information it sought under the search warrants especially for the more than 300 people who weren’t charged, it also has more work to do when it comes to making disclosures about requests the government makes for national security reasons.

Although today’s news shows the scope of the search warrants the company receives, it’s important that the public one day has a better understanding of how frequently Facebook receives all types of government information requests.