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Facebook, Microsoft Spill the Beans on Government Data Requests

Facebook and Microsoft announced Friday that they received thousands of requests to hand over user data to government agencies in the last six months of 2012.

In the wake of public outcry over the possibility of government surveillance without probable cause, tech giants are asking national security officials to let them be more transparent about the circumstances under which they provide the government with user data.

"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," said Ted Ulloyt, general counsel for Facebook, in a June 11 statement. "[We] look forward to publishing a report that includes that information." 

On Friday evening, Facebook and Microsoft released the number of law enforcement and national security data requests they received in the second half of 2012. The figures include Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requests, which tech companies were unable to acknowledge before now.

Ulloyt now says Facebook has permission to disclose total numbers, but is forbidden form giving specifics.

"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,” Ulloyt wrote.

He added: “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 to 10 thousand requests was between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts."

Ulloyt noted that only a small fraction of Facebook's 1.1 billion users have been affected by data requests.

"This is progress, but we’re continuing to push for even more transparency so that our users around the world can understand how infrequently we are asked to provide user data on national security grounds," he said.

Microsoft released similar figures, but John Frank, Microsoft vice president and deputy counsel, said he wishes they could disclose more so that the public could completely wrap its head around the issue.

Frank said Microsoft received between 6,000 and 7,000 subpeonas, orders and criminal and national security warrants — affecting as many as 32,000 accounts in the last six months of 2012, according to Fox News.

In the aftermath of the National Security Agency’s PRISM program finally being exposed to the public, the tech giants want to distance themselves from the it. However, reassuring the public that the government does not have “backdoor” access into their servers has done little to quell public fears that “Big Brother is watching.”

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

Sources: Fox News, NY Magazine


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