Facebook, Microsoft release information on government data requests

Technology giants Facebook and Microsoft said Friday night that they have received thousands of requests from U.S. government agencies to turn over user data in the just last six months of 2012.

Representatives of both companies said that after negotiations with national security officials their companies have been given permission to make new but still very limited revelations about government orders requesting user data.

Ted Ullyot, Facebook's general counsel, said in a statement Friday that Facebook is only allowed to talk about total numbers and must give no specifics. But he said the permission it has received is still unprecedented, and the company was lobbying to reveal more.

"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," Ullyot said.

Using the new guidelines, Ullyot said Facebook received between 9,000 and 10,000 government requests from all government entities from local to federal in the last six months of 2012, on various topics. The requests involved the accounts of between 18,000 and 19,000 Facebook users.

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    Facebook was not allowed to make public how many orders it received from a particular agency or on a particular subject. But the numbers do include all national security related requests including those submitted via national security letters and under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which companies had not previously been allowed to reveal.

    Ullyot said the company wanted to reveal the information because of "confusion and inaccurate reporting" on the issue, and to show that only "a tiny fraction of one percent" of its 1.1 billion users have been affected.

    "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 numbers for the same period, but downplayed how much they revealed.

    "We continue to believe that what we are permitted to publish continues to fall short of what is needed to help the community understand and debate these issues," John Frank, Microsoft's vice president and deputy general counsel said in a statement.

    Frank said Microsoft received between 6,000 and 7,000 criminal and national security warrants, subpoenas and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 accounts.

    Both attorneys emphasized in their statements that those affected by the orders represent a "tiny fraction" of their huge user bases.

    The disclosures come after Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American who works as a contract employee at the National Security Agency, revealed to The Guardian newspaper the existence of secret surveillance programs that gathered Americans' phone records and other data. The companies did not link their actions to Snowden's leaks.

    In a rare alliance, Facebook, Google and Microsoft Corp. have been pressuring the Obama administration to loosen their legal gag on government surveillance orders.

    The companies have sought to distance themselves from the Internet dragnet code-named "PRISM" that was revealed in leaks last week.

    "We have always believed that it's important to differentiate between different types of government requests," a statement from Google said. "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."

    Facebook repeated recent assurances that the company scrutinizes every government request, and works aggressively to protect users' data. Facebook said it has a compliance rate of 79 percent on government requests.

    "We frequently reject such requests outright, or require the government to substantially scale down its requests, or simply give the government much less data than it has requested," Ullyot said." And we respond only as required by law."

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.