Facebook is opening up its ledger of government probes for user information, revealing over 25,600 separate requests in the first half of 2013. Today, the company launched its "Global Government Requests Report," a chart laying out how often various countries order Facebook to give up data about a user and how many of those requests are honored. Overall, at least 25,607 orders were put in for 37,954 separate accounts in the first six months of this year, with nearly half of them coming from the United States. Virtually no country had all its requests honored, but the total numbers were often still high: in the US, 79 percent of requests were honored at least in part.
The table lists anything made by any government branch, from standard law enforcement to more covert activities, and it includes requests for all kinds of information. That means we're looking at everything from a police subpoena asking for a burglar's account email address to a secret court order for the IP address of a protestor. In many cases, it's impossible to know the context behind a request, but some of the data raises questions.
Facebook still can't give exact numbers for American requests
Between the beginning of 2013 and June 30th, for example, the Turkish government made 96 requests on 170 users; Facebook returned some data for just under half of those. In June, an official claimed the government was working with Facebook to identify protestors on social media during a bloody crackdown, something that Facebook denied. "We reject all government data requests from Turkish authorities and push them to formal legal channels unless it appears that there is an immediate threat to life or a child, which has been the case in only a small fraction of the requests we have received," it said then. Now, though, it appears that Turkey didn't actually have an overwhelming number of requests rejected, though the story is still very fuzzy.
Besides the US, only five countries asked for information on over 1,000 users: France, Italy, India, Germany, and the UK. Of those, France and Germany saw about 40 percent of their requests granted, while India and Italy got about half granted. The UK saw nearly 70 percent approved at least in part. But all five are dwarfed by the US, which made between 11,000 and 12,000 requests on 20,000 – 21,000 users. These numbers appear to have risen slightly from Facebook's estimates in 2012. Unlike all other country data, the US numbers can't even be reported exactly. The gag orders associated with FBI national security letters and FISA court requests make it difficult to talk about many orders at all, and Facebook was only allowed to start mentioning them in ranges in June.
Google and Microsoft have gotten similar allowances from the government, and both currently list US national security requests in wide ranges like Facebook does. Google particularly has fought for greater transparency in government requests, but following revelations that the NSA has broad access to information from almost every tech giant, lifting the veil on how often user data is given up has become simply good business practice for anyone whose success rests on keeping the public trust.