Governments are demanding user data from Facebook in record numbers

Privacy news
4 mins
An illustratoin of the Stars nd Stripes, but the Facebook F replaces all the stars.

According to Facebook’s latest transparency report, government requests for user data reached their highest level ever in the first six months of 2019, numbering 128,617.

The U.S. government asked for 50,741 pieces of data, with the social media leviathan complying 88% of the time. But here’s a sordid detail: Two-thirds of all the U.S. government requests were accompanied with a gag order, meaning that Facebook couldn’t inform users that the government had requested their data.

India clocked in at second place with over 33,000 requests. Facebook, however, only furnished data for 54% of them.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom had north of 5,000 requests each.

The report added that Facebook’s services had been disrupted 67 times from January to June 2019 across 15 countries. This is up from the last six months of 2018, when there were 53 disruptions in nine countries.

Facebook alluded to the fact that it’s looking at posted content more closely than before, explaining that it removed 11.6 million pieces of content that violated its policies on child nudity and sexual exploitation. The same time last year saw the social media company remove 5.8 million pieces.

Statistics on Instagram content moderation were included for the first time, too. A total of 1.68 million pieces of content were blocked on the photo sharing app during the second and third quarters of 2018.

Under what circumstances does Facebook hand over information?

Facebook maintains that it mainly hands over data when the request is accompanied by a legal document such as a search warrant. Disclosure of account records is done in accordance with the company’s terms of service and local law.

Over 116,000 requests, or about 90% of the total, were considered by Facebook to fall under the “legal request” category.

Another category that Facebook considers when handing over user information is whether there’s an imminent risk of serious physical injury or death. Such requests are purely voluntary as they aren’t part of a legal process. Approximately 10% of total data requests fell under the “emergency” category.

What is a Facebook government data request?

We mentioned the two broad categories for Facebook data requests. The company adds that the vast majority of cases relate to criminal cases, mostly either robberies or kidnappings. Requests for data usually involve the name, registration date, IP address logs, and content posted. The request could also include things like the email address and phone number.

If you’re a government official trying to understand how you can request data on the citizens of your country, then here are Facebook’s guidelines on the matter.

Will Facebook notify me if there’s a request for data on my account?

The company says that its “policy is to notify people who use our service of requests for their information prior to disclosure unless we are prohibited by law from doing so.”

So yes, you might well be notified if the government requests data on you. However, the company adds that it might not notify users if there’s a possibility of child exploitation, or when providing notice would be “counter-productive.”

Facebook could also provide delayed notice after the expiry of a non-disclosure period. But perhaps that might not matter since if you’ve broken the law, it’s likely that you’re now under arrest.

How can I prevent Facebook from handing over my personal information?

The short answer is that, as long as you use Facebook, you don’t really have a choice. Part of Facebook’s user agreement is that the company records and stores all the information you choose to post or share with them. And while it promises never to sell the information to third parties, the fact is the social media giant wishes to know as much about you as it possibly can so that you can be bombarded with relevant advertisements.

The answer is to consider Facebook alternatives if you wish to extricate yourself from the addictive platform. Or just delete Facebook entirely.

To its credit, however, Facebook is very transparent about the amount of data it shares with governments and doesn’t just automatically comply with all requests. Maybe that’s because it’s greedy and wants all the data for itself. After all, it has spent years and billions of dollars in trying to acquire it. Why should Facebook simply hand over all the fruits of its labor?

I kid (somewhat). The company says it scrutinizes each government request for account data meticulously and makes sure that it is always legally valid.

“If a request appears to be deficient or legally broad, we push back and will fight in court, if necessary,” explains Facebook.

It points to the June 2018 Brazilian court order to wiretap Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger accounts in a specific location with the threat of a penalty for non-compliance. At the time, the Menlo Park company appealed the decision, arguing (successfully) that the broad scope was unconstitutional and that it violated Brazilian privacy rights.

Nevertheless, this pro-privacy stance is most likely a red herring. After all, the company is trying to spy on our brains.

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.