Facebook Get Its Transparency Wish, Reports on National Security-Related Data Requests

Josh WolfordIT Management

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On the heels of the leaked documents detailing the National Security Agency's secret internet surveillance initiative, PRISM, companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple were quick to deny any voluntary involvement in providing troves of user data to the U.S. government.

Facebook and Google, most notably, went on the offensive - demanding the U.S. government that they be allowed more freedom to disclose the frequency and nature of the thousands of national security-related data requests that they receive every year.

Less than a week ago, Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot had this to say in a statement:

"We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond. We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information."

And now it appears that Facebook is getting their wish - sort of.

Facebook has announced that, as a result of their discussions with federal agencies, they can now include aggregate numbers of national security-related requests in a transparency report (this includes National Security Letters and FISA). Aggregate - not specific. It's the same deal that Google got when they began to publish info on National Security Letters back in March.

So, here it is. Facebook's first NSL/FISA request transparency report:

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.

That means that less than 0.002% of all monthly active Facebook users have had their accounts targeted by the government. As Facebook is happy to point out, this is a very, very small fraction.

"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," says Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot.

Facebook didn't say whether or not this transparency report will be a regular thing - possibly every 6 months (that's the period of time they just revealed). But you can expect Facebook to at least continue to report the unspecific numbers on national security-related requests - which it's hard to argue is anything other than a plus.

Josh Wolford
Josh Wolford is a writer for WebProNews. He likes beer, Japanese food, and movies that make him feel weird afterward. Mostly beer. Follow him on Twitter: @joshgwolf Instagram: @joshgwolf Google+: Joshua Wolford StumbleUpon: joshgwolf