U.S. Tops List of Countries That Want to Know What You Do on Facebook

A new report from the social-media website shows the federal government wants users’ information — but for what?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg smiles during an announcement at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Aug. 27, 2013, noon

Today, Face­book has more than 1 bil­lion act­ive users world­wide, span­ning 70 lan­guages and 210 coun­tries. But no coun­try cares as much about what those users are do­ing as the United States does, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port from the so­cial-me­dia net­work.

Al­though 75 per­cent of Face­book users live out­side the U.S., the coun­try tops the list of gov­ern­ments that re­quest user data. In just the first half of 2013, the U.S. gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing both loc­al and na­tion­al se­cur­ity law en­force­ment, made between 11,000 and 12,000 re­quests for between 20,000 and 21,000 users’ in­form­a­tion. Face­book was re­quired by law to dis­close the data in 79 per­cent of these re­quests, the re­port states.

In­done­sia, the coun­try with the second-largest num­ber of users, doesn’t ap­pear on this re­port. In­dia, the third largest, made 3,245 re­quests cov­er­ing 4,144 users. For In­dia, Face­book com­plied half the time. Of course, the U.S. is also the coun­try with the largest num­ber of Face­book users in the world, which can skew the num­bers.

Face­book dis­closed data for 68 per­cent of the 1,975 re­quests for 2,337 users made by the U.K., which put in the second-highest num­ber of re­quests be­hind the U.S. In third was Ger­many with 1,886 and a com­pli­ance rate of 37 per­cent. Rus­sia made just one re­quest, which was denied.

While oth­er di­git­al gi­ants such as Google and Twit­ter have pre­vi­ously pub­lished re­ports on gov­ern­ment re­quests in the name of trans­par­ency, this is the first time Face­book is re­leas­ing such num­bers.

Face­book has proved use­ful in aid­ing in­vest­ig­a­tions without the use of leg­al pres­sure. One ex­ample is the New York Po­lice De­part­ment, which con­ducts reg­u­lar can­vasses of the net­work. One Brook­lyn pre­cinct cred­its these searches, made pos­sible by some crim­in­als’ lack of pri­vacy set­tings, with help­ing of­ficers col­lect 199 il­leg­al fire­arms last year.

But when law en­force­ment does re­quest private, per­son­al data, Face­book Gen­er­al Coun­sel Colin Stretch says that the so­cial-me­dia net­work doesn’t of­fer up user data as soon as gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials come call­ing. “We fight many of these re­quests, push­ing back when we find leg­al de­fi­cien­cies and nar­row­ing the scope of overly broad or vague re­quests,” Stretch writes in the re­port. “When we are re­quired to com­ply with a par­tic­u­lar re­quest, we fre­quently share only ba­sic user in­form­a­tion, such as name.”

But some­times, it stands to reas­on, Face­book may give up more than just their users’ names. What that in­form­a­tion is re­mains to be seen — Stretch prom­ised the re­port isn’t the last of its kind, and fu­ture ones will in­clude more in­form­a­tion about the nature of the re­quests. And pulling user in­form­a­tion is easy enough, even for the users them­selves. In 2010, the web­site rolled out a fea­ture that al­lowed users to down­load a zip file of their pro­files con­sist­ing of HTML files of their walls, event his­tor­ies, mes­sages, lists of friends, and im­ages.

In the past five years, a data­base main­tained by the Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter to track sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists ad­ded 335,000 names, for a total of 875,000. The list in­cludes thou­sands of Amer­ic­ans. How many of them use Face­book?

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