Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Facebook, the Government and Your Personal Data

With reporting about Facebook's Cambridge Analytica user privacy shenanigans during the 2016 election appearing relatively frequently since it was first reported, I thought I would take a look at one very little-reported aspect of Facebook; the requests that are made by governments around the world for data that users have generously and somewhat naively shared with Facebook.

Here is the lead page from Facebook's Transparency website:

While Facebook claims that they have strict policies and processes for providing this data to governments, as you will soon see, the company is quite generous in how often it complies with these requests which are all part of our paranoid post-September 2001 reality.  It is important to keep in mind that the data presented in this posting includes information about government requests from Facebook and its product line including Instagram, Messenger, Oculus and WhatsApp.

Let's open with Facebook's definition of a government data request:

"Government officials sometimes make requests for data about people who use Facebook as part of official investigations. The vast majority of these requests relate to criminal cases, such as robberies or kidnappings. In many of these cases, these government requests seek basic subscriber information, such as name, registration date and length of service. Other requests may also seek IP address logs or account content. We have strict guidelines in place to deal with all government data requests."

Here is a graph showing how many times governments around the world have requested data from Facebook noting that there is a 6 month delay in reporting:

Of the 103,815 data requests in the first half of 2018, Facebook produced some data for 76,823 requests.

Here is a graphic showing the types of data requests that governments made:

Note that, on a global basis, Facebook provided some data for just under 80 percent when the request was deemed an "emergency", requests that are submitted by law enforcement without legal process such as a search warrant.  Facebook claims that it "...may voluntarily disclose information to law enforcement where we have a good faith reason to believe that the matter involves imminent risk of serious physical injury or death.".  How Facebook is able to ascertain this in the majority of cases is unknown and given that the company still provides data for 73.2 percent of "legal process" requests (i.e. requests that are accompanied by a legal process such as a search warrant) suggests that the company is overly generous with our personal data.

Just in case you think that you can get away from Facebook's grip on your data by deleting your account, such is not the case.  Here is a graphic showing how many accounts Facebook has preserved pending receipt of formal legal process:

In these cases, Facebook preserves a temporary snapshot of the relevant account information but doesn't disclose any of the preserved records until they are served with a formal and valid legal process.

Now, let's look at some specific country-by-country data request statistics:

1.) United States:

The total of 42,466 in Q1 2018 represents 40.9 percent of global data requests in that quarter.

Here is a breakdown of requests by type for the United States showing that emergency requests are a small part of the total but that in both cases, data is refused for less than 16 percent of the total:

Interestingly, data requests are made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA as shown in this table which shows the number of requests in ranges:

For the following countries, I will only supply the raw data showing the number of requests and the percentage of requests that are fulfilled:

2.) United Kingdom:

3.) Canada:

4.) Australia:

Please note that there is no data for Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.

As you can see from this posting, by opening up your private life to Facebook, you are potentially opening yourself to deeper government scrutiny.  As a Facebook user, you have no choice but to trust that Facebook will not disclose your personal life to a nosy government and, as you can see, in the vast majority of cases, Facebook is only too willing to supply that information to governments on your behalf.

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