Facebook Releases First-Ever Transparency Report

A section of Facebook’s Transparency Report.

Facebook has joined Google and other tech giants in releasing a “transparency report” that lists governments’ requests for user data.

This initial report covers the first six months of 2013 (ending June 30) and details which countries asked Facebook for user information; the number of requests received from those countries; the number of user accounts specified in those requests; and the percentage of requests that Facebook fulfilled to some degree.

Facebook produced at least “some data” in response to many countries’ requests, which the transparency report renders as a percentage. For example, the United Kingdom made 1,975 requests about 2,337 users and received data on 68 percent of them, although the report offers precious little detail beyond that.

The United States made between 11,000 and 12,000 requests for user data, on about 20,000 and 21,000 users, and received some portion of that data 79 percent of the time. “We continue to push the United States government to allow more transparency regarding these requests, including specific numbers and types of national security-related requests,” Facebook noted in the report’s FAQ. The United States government forcing technology companies to report only a range of requests—rather than a specific number—is an ongoing problem, and tech companies make a very big show of pushing back against it.

“As we have made clear in recent weeks, we have stringent processes in place to handle all government data requests,” read the summary of Facebook’s report. “We believe this process protects the data of the people who use our service, and requires governments to meet a very high legal bar with each individual request in order to receive any information about any of our users.”

There’s a huge subtext to that statement, of which anyone who’s followed the news about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs is well aware. Earlier this summer, The Guardian offered up top-secret documents, leaked by whistleblower (and former government contractor) Edward Snowden, that detailed a top-secret NSA project codenamed PRISM. According to those documents, PRISM siphons information from nine major technology companies: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple.

In emails to Slashdot and other media outlets, most of those companies denied any such involvement in the NSA’s programs. Google followed up that denial with a very public campaign of asking the federal government to release more data about its requests, including a revision of the policy that forces Google to report National Security Letters (NSLs) as a numerical range rather than exact number. Google was doing that, of course, in order to show that the sanctity of user data was its first priority—Facebook’s new transparency report has a similar goal.


Image: Facebook