Social networking giant Facebook has revealed that it received thousands of requests from the US government for the personal data of users in the second half of 2012. The Palo Alto, California-based company made the disclosure after being granted permission by Washington to release data pertaining to previously classified government requisitions.
The world’s largest social network, majority controlled by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, requested permission to release the information to the public in order to limit the damage the recent NSA hacking scandal has had on its user base, experts believe.
Facebook says that it received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests for information from the US government – and by proxy from the NSA – in the last six months of last year, a figure which represents a “tiny fraction” of its overall user base. The company said that the requests, which in all affected around 20,000 users, were lodged by government sources seeking to root our foreign and domestic terrorist organisations, and criminal fugitives.
The US Justice Department said that many of the requests were made as part of routine police investigations, a practice which is also commonplace in Ireland and the UK.
Facebook’s general counsel Ted Ulloyt explained in a blog post that the company hopes the disclosure will help to repair Facebook’s often tenuous relationship with its users, and provide a measure of reassurance to users worried about their online privacy.
“With more than 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide, this means that a tiny fraction of one per cent of our user accounts were the subject of any kind of US state, local, or federal government request,” Ulloyt wrote. “We hope this helps put into perspective the numbers involved, and lays to rest some of the hyperbolic and false assertions in some recent press accounts about the frequency and scope of the data requests that we receive.”
Facebook added that it did not comply with all of the requests, challenging some. In all, the internet behemoth said it complied with 79% of the NSA’s applications.
Facebook was not the only internet giant to move to allay fears of privacy breaches – Google and Microsoft also made similar disclosures after submitting appeals of their own. Microsoft said that it received slightly less of the so-called data security warrants than Facebook at between 6,000 and 7,000, while Google says it is still negotiating with lawmakers in the hope of providing users with information about exactly why it received and complied with the requests.
“We have always believed that it is important to differentiate between the different types of Government requests,” the Mountain View, California company said in a statement. The company added that it already deals with criminal requests and national security requests separately – explaining that any less would be a step in the wrong direction for users.
In an open letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder, the company’s top brass insisted they had “nothing to hide”. “Google’s numbers clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made,” the company’s chief legal officer David Drummond wrote.
The disclosures come after the companies reached an agreement with the US Justice Department to release some details – though experts say the amount of data released is nowhere near adequate enough to quell internet users’ fears and address reservations. Some companies which are known to have been the subject of requisitions – like Apple, PayPal and Yahoo – have not yet attempted to provide reassurances. Apple and AOL have released statements saying that they never heard of PRISM – the NSA operation under which the requests for user data was made.
After Facebook and Microsoft made their announcements, a spokesperson for the Justice Department confirmed that the government had “reached agreements with certain providers” about the release of some information. The spokesperson, Andrew Ames, explained that the companies’ requests were granted “to afford greater transparency to the public while preserving confidentiality required for law enforcement or national security reasons”. Some, he said, were the result of the issuance of criminal warrants or grand jury subpoenas.