Facebook Just Acknowledged How Much the Government Spies On Users

In a rare move, Facebook released a report on Tuesday revealing the number of data requests the company has received from government agencies during the first six months of 2013, as well as the rate at which the requests are fulfilled. The company said it plans to continue releasing these reports in the future. 

This was a surprising decision as, despite a whirlwind of controversy brewing this summer over the issue of government access to data and overall transparency, the company has no obligation to release this type of information. While other platforms such as Microsoft and Google have addressed the issue of government surveillance in recent months, Facebook has kept its interactions with government agencies in relative quiet until now. In this context, the political tone the new Facebook report takes in its self-described effort to "contribute" to the national debate on data and privacy is particularly notable.  

The report reveals that Facebook provides some data in response to a whopping 79% of U.S. government requests (for either criminal or national security reasons). These requests seek information for official criminal or security investigations. The requests often look for basic information, such as the user's name and length of online service, although some requests seek much more specific data, such as "IP address logs or actual account content." 

Facebook says it received between 20,000 and 21,000 requests from the U.S. government during the first six months of 2013, contributing to about half of the company's overall requests globally. India submitted the second largest number of requests (4,144), and received about 50% of requested data in response. Some countries, such as Russia and Qatar, have only submitted one or two such requests. This is not surprising, as the website's use can be severely monitored in these contexts. 

In introducing this data, Facebook's General Counsel Colin Stretch defensively underlined the company's devotion to the privacy of its users. Stretch stated, "We hope this report will be useful to our users in the ongoing debate about the proper standards for government requests for user information in official investigations." He claimed that the company has made an effort to combat these requests, "pushing back when we find legal deficiencies," and trying to narrow the scope of broad or vague requests. 

Facebook's approach to announcing the data included a lengthy disclaimer about the company's incredibly idealistic vision of marrying online safety and privacy. "We believe that while governments have an important responsibility to keep people safe," the announcement added, saying, "It is possible to do so while also being transparent. Government transparency and public safety are not mutually exclusive ideals. Each can exist simultaneously in free and open societies, and they help make us stronger."