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Facebook releases information on NSA requests for user data

June 14, 2013|By Jessica Guynn
  • Facebook's computer servers in a data center in Sweden.
Facebook's computer servers in a data center in Sweden. (Susanne Lindholm / EPA )

SAN FRANCISCO -- Looking to shield itself from a growing public backlash over damaging revelations that it turned over user data to the National Security Agency's clandestine Internet surveillance program Prism, Facebook said late Friday it had reached an agreement to divulge some details about the government requests it receives for information about its users.

Ted Ullyot, Facebook's general counsel, said the company had urged authorities "to allow more transparency and flexibility around national security-related orders we are required to comply with."

The result, he said, is Facebook's first-ever report on requests from the government for its users' information.

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Facebook says that in the second half of 2012, the total number of requests for user data that it received from all local, state and federal authorities was between 9,000 and 10,000. Those requests targeted between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts. Facebook complied with 79% of the requests, it said.

The information does not break out national security requests.

"The government will only authorize us to communicate about these numbers in aggregate and as a range," Ullyot said. "This is progress, but we're continuing to push for even more transparency."

In a statement, a Google spokesman said the deal that Facebook struck with the government was not sufficient.

"We have always believed that it's important to differentiate between different types of government requests. We already publish criminal requests separately from National Security Letters. Lumping the two categories together would be a step back for users," he wrote. "Our request to the government is clear: to be able to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately."

Google has gone to greater lengths than any other Web company to disclose the nature and number of government requests for information about its users through its semiannual "transparency report."

Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other technology giants have been pressing the Obama administration to allow them to publicly disclose more information about the national security requests they get under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

The three-decade-old law lets intelligence agencies monitor the communications of non-U.S. citizens who are believed to be outside the United States and involved in terrorist or other criminal activities.

FISA bars companies from even acknowledging they have received such requests. That secrecy has created a firestorm of controversy after revelations that technology companies have been turning over foreign users’ data to NSA.

Google published an open letter this week to Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller to give it more freedom to share with users the number and scope of national security requests.

"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users' data are simply untrue," Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, wrote.

Facebook and Microsoft made similar public statements.

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