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Why the U.S. government has power over Facebook information requests

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In case you haven’t heard, there’s no such thing as privacy on social media when the U.S. government is involved.

In an effort to be more transparent of when and how Facebook’s data is shared with with governments around the world, the social media platform released its first Global Government Requests Report. In the first six months of 2013, the U.S. government has sent requests for the information of as many as 21,000 users. That’s five times more than the country with the second-most requests, India, and dwarfs other first-world western nations by as much as 10,000.

Why is the volume so great? Because Facebook must comply with U.S. law.


Stored Communications Act is an old law, enacted in the Reagan administration, that was meant to provide U.S. jurisdiction over “stored wire and electronic communications and transactional records” held by ISPs. Back in 1986, when the internet was comprised of a handful of government and institutional internet networks that ran information for governmental bodies like the Department of Education, the Department of Defense and NASA, the law was enacted to punish users with unauthorized access to stored files from ISPs. But, it can also be used by the U.S. government to compel companies to turn over large swaths of stored communications.

Under this decades-old, largely pre-internet law, the government can lift a vast amount of a user’s data — especially on Facebook. This means that any private messages, photo uploads and statuses are fair game if a request is made by a governmental body. Granted, Facebook continues to assure that these requests are enacted largely by local law enforcement in the event of a crime.

But, the Transparency report still gives interesting (and shocking) insight to how much our privacy erodes when we put our lives online.