News & Politics

When the Government Asks, Tech Companies Usually Turn Over User Information

How often do technology companies hand over user information to the government? More answers to that question have come out in recent days.

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Just how often do technology companies hand over user information to the government? That question has taken on renewed significance in the wake of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures. A big problem, though, is that technology companies like Facebook and Google can’t reveal many specific details about the government requests, as Mother Jones’ Dana Liebelson points out.

Snowden disclosed the existence of a program called PRISM, which, according to an NSA slide detailing the program, allowed the government “direct access” to the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and more. But the companies say that the government requests information from the companies based on a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act request, and the data is then turned over.

In the wake of this revelation, companies including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter asked the U.S. government to be allowed to release data on how much information they give over when asked. In response, the government said they could release information about the number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests--but only in conjunction with information about other government agencies’ requests. In practice, this means that the information released does not reveal a whole lot about FISA requests.

Microsoft and Facebook have now released the data they are allowed to, though Google and Twitter have not and are pressing to be allowed to disclose the specific amount of FISA requests, according to Mother Jones.

This new data is in addition to information already released over the past few years by some technology companies about government requests for user information. But they can only provided limited information about what are known as national security letters--a Patriot Act-authorized demand letter to organizations or companies related to a terrorism investigation. Liebelson notes that “Google could only report that it had received as many as 999 national security letters in 2012, targeting between 1,000 and 1,999 user accounts.” Companies can’t reveal a lot about the content contained in requests turned over as a result of national security letters.

Mother Jones has some more numbers:

Last year, Google “received over 16,400 requests covering more than 31,000 user accounts from federal, state, and local authorities.”

Microsoft received 6,000-7,000 government requests for information in the second half of last year that related to 32,000 accounts.

Facebook received 9,000-10,000 government requests in the second half of last year as well, which affected 19,000 accounts.

Twitter received 1,494 government requests last year, which affected 2,093 accounts.

Those numbers include FISA requests along with state and local government requests. The companies usually hand the information over. Google granted the information to government 89% of the time; Microsoft 79% of the time; and Twitter 72% of the time. Other companies besides those have not released new data incorporating FISA requests.

In total, 64,936 users of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft were affected by government requests from July-December 2012.


Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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