Facebook, Microsoft disclose number of national security-related data requests

Inside Facebook's Lulea data center, the servers are Open Compute but the chips are not.

Facebook announced late Friday evening that it has reached an agreement with national security authorities that allows it to provide more information to the public about the government’s requests for user data. The company will now be able to include information on all U.S. national security-related requests in its disclosure, including those made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Microsoft followed Facebook and said it would provide similar information, but Google declined to lump all requests together, saying that such a move would be a “step back” for users.

As we reported earlier this week, Facebook, along with Microsoft and Google, had been pushing for the right to reveal more about its participation in the government’s PRISM program, which involves snooping on users of many of the big internet services. The public requests by these companies were clearly an effort to push back against allegations that some of them essentially opened their doors to government spying.

In its press release, Facebook reported that from June to December of 2012, the government made between 9,000 and 10,000 requests involving user data, and these requests were connected to between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts — clearly a small percentage of the 1 billion active users on the network. The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook complied “at least partially” with 79 percent of the requests in that time.

After Facebook released its numbers on Friday night, Microsoft released similar statistics. “For the six months ended December 31, 2012, Microsoft received  between 6,000 and 7,000 criminal and national security warrants, subpoenas and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 consumer accounts from U.S. governmental entities,” the company said in its release, available on its website.

Right now, Facebook is just releasing information on the number of requests for a range of time, not a breakdown of the different types of requests. AllThingsD reported earlier that Google was pushing for the ability to disclose even more about those requests, rather than lumping them all into one range, as Facebook and Microsoft have done. Google currently reports information related to National Security Letters as part of its transparency report, breaking out government request by type.

A Google spokesperson provided us with a statment on the company’s decision not to provide a lump range for government requests, saying such a move would be a “step back” for users.

“We have always believed that it’s important to differentiate between different types of government requests. We already publish criminal requests separately from National Security Letters. Lumping the two categories together would be a step back for users. Our request to the government is clear: to be able to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately.”

From the Facebook press release, which can be found in its entirety on the company’s site, the company explains the agreement it reached regarding requests:

Since this story was first reported, we’ve been in discussions with U.S. national security authorities urging them to allow more transparency and flexibility around national security-related orders we are required to comply with. We’re pleased that as a result of our discussions, we can now include in a transparency report all U.S. national security-related requests (including FISA as well as National Security Letters) – which until now no company has been permitted to do. As of today, the government will only authorize us to communicate about these numbers in aggregate, and as a range. This is progress, but we’re continuing to push for even more transparency, so that our users around the world can understand how infrequently we are asked to provide user data on national security grounds.

For the six months ending December 31, 2012, the total number of user-data requests Facebook received from any and all government entities in the U.S. (including local, state, and federal, and including criminal and national security-related requests) – was between 9,000 and 10,000. These requests run the gamut – from things like a local sheriff trying to find a missing child, to a federal marshal tracking a fugitive, to a police department investigating an assault, to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat. The total number of Facebook user accounts for which data was requested pursuant to the entirety of those 9-10 thousand requests was between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts.

This post was continually updated as the story developed.

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