Big Brother? Government demands for private Facebook data on the rise

Big Brother? Government demands for private Facebook data on the rise
By Chris Harris
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This table shows the countries who made the most requests to Facebook for access to users’ account data, January-June 2014. We then compare the percentage change for the same six-month period in 2013.#### TOP TEN

Jan-Jun 2014% changeUSA15,433**+34.2India4,559****+40.5Germany2,537****+34.5France2,249****+45.4UK2,110****+6.8Italy1,869****+9.62Brazil1,307****+82.8Australia610****+11.7Spain514****+7.3Portugal354****+100**


Romania16no changeDenmark15**+36.4Cyprus13****+333.3Czech Republic11****+10Lithuania837.5Estonia7no dataLuxembourg4no dataBulgaria3+200** Source: Facebook

Germany, France, the UK and Italy dominate rising European demands for access to Facebook account data, new figures reveal.

The statistics, released by the social networking giant, show the quartet were responsible for more than four-fifths of requests from the EU in the first six months of this year.

Civil liberty groups have called for more government transparency over the access requests, which have risen by 27 percent in Europe over the last 18 months.

Germany (see table, right) put in the most requests in Europe in the first half of this year, up 34.5 percent compared with the same period in 2013.

France, of the quartet, had the biggest rise, up 45.4 percent to 2,249 requests.

But Facebook is keen to point out not all requests are accepted – Germany had 34 percent of them complied with, France 30 percent.

The success rate of Germany and France was among the lowest in the EU, indicating many of their requests were deemed unreasonable. To compare, the UK – who made 2,110 requests, a similar number to France and Germany – had a success percentage of 71.7.

Facebook also released data (see graphic below) on how many times it has restricted access to content in certain countries. The website says the requests are generally justified by local laws designed to protect the state or religion from criticism.

Turkey, Pakistan and India are world leaders in this category, with the former targeting nearly 4,000 pieces of content in the 12 months to July 2014.

Earlier this year Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “wipe out Twitter” accusing users of spreading allegations of corruption.


The figures come after the revelations of former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, which claimed the US and British intelligence agencies tapped directly into the servers of internet firms – including Facebook – to track online communications.

This week Robert Hannigan, the new director of Britain’s eavesdropping agency, said companies such as Facebook were in denial about their unintended role as “the command and control networks of choice for terrorists”.

“The challenge to governments and their intelligence agencies is huge — and it can only be met with greater co-operation from technology companies,” Hannigan wrote in the Financial Times newspaper. “If they are to meet this challenge, it means coming up with better arrangements for facilitating lawful investigation by security and law enforcement agencies than we have now.”

Daniel Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch, told euronews: “These figures show that, despite the recent claims by GCHQ head Robert Hannigan, tech companies do co-operate with requests from law enforcement agencies.

“They also show that if UK agencies want information about individuals they believe pose a threat to national security there is a proper process to follow and if this process is followed the data will be released.


“What is now more urgent than ever is the need for greater government transparency around the requests it makes. It should not be up US companies to publish data on how our law enforcement bodies use their powers. Without more information the public debate around privacy and security will remain limited and ill-informed.”


Liberty’s policy officer Rachel Robinson said: “Days after the new GCHQ chief sought to smear tech companies, credit to Facebook for standing up for transparency.

“But goodwill from the private sector can only take us so far. Liberty’s ongoing legal challenge has revealed gaping holes in the law that allow the agencies to bulk intercept millions of our personal emails, messages and web chats without warrant. A new and transparent law is urgently needed if government is going to begin to restore public trust.”

Meanwhile Chris Jones, a researcher for Statewatch, said UK authorities have been working on gathering social media intelligence for some time.

He said one former employee had told a conference in Australia that “social media almost acts like CCTV on the ground for us. Just like the private sector use it for marketing and branding, we’ve developed something to listen in and see what the public are thinking”.


Mr Jones added: “The [data request] increases are clearly significant. Whether they’re sustained over the next six months and beyond remains to be seen. But as people continue to put more information about themselves into quasi-public online environments like Facebook, it only seems logical that attempts by state authorities to gather that information – whether for criminal investigations or for more nebulous “national security” purposes – will increase.

“The files leaked by Edward Snowden demonstrate that there is an urgent need to control state surveillance of telecommunications in all its forms, and that includes exploiting the information people post on Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks. However, limiting or halting these practices is likely to be a very slow process. In the meantime I think responsibility lies with individuals to control the information they post online about themselves and the ways in which they communicate with people. That’s easier said than done given that Facebook is essentially a giant surveillance machine with the added benefit of being able to see what your friends are up to, but it’s something people need to take seriously.”


Chris Sonderby, Facebook’s deputy general counsel, said: “As we’ve said before, we scrutinise every government request we receive for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and push back hard when we find deficiencies or are served with overly broad requests.

“Indeed, over the past year, we’ve challenged bulk search warrants issued by a court in New York that demanded we turn over nearly all data from the accounts of nearly 400 people. This unprecedented request was by far the largest we’ve ever received. We’ve argued that these overly broad warrants violate the privacy rights of the people on Facebook and ignore constitutional safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Despite a setback in the lower court, we’re aggressively pursuing an appeal to a higher court to invalidate these sweeping warrants and to force the government to return the data it has seized. We’re grateful for the support of others in industry and civil society who’ve filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of our fight. We expect the case to be decided by a New York appellate court later this year, and we look forward to updating you on the results of this important case.”



This infographic shows how many pieces of information Facebook restricted access to, after requests by governments.

It covers two six-month periods, January to June this year and July to December in 2013.

Create Infographics

Source: Facebook

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