Facebook, Microsoft: Government requests for user data in the thousands

Tech giants Facebook and Microsoft late Friday said they received thousands of government requests for user data during the past six months of 2012.

Facebook said it received between 9,000 and 10,000 government requests for the period, covering  between 18,000 and 19,000 user accounts.

Ted Ullyot, the social networking giant’s general counsel, said the company asked the federal government for permission to release the information, given “continued confusion and inaccurate reporting related to this issue.”

Facebook said the requests ranged from a local sheriff trying to find a missing child to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat.

John Frank, Microsoft's vice president and deputy general counsel, said in a statement that Microsoft received between 6,000 and 7,000 criminal and national security warrants, subpoenas and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 accounts.

"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," he said.

The announcements came after former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about the agency’s Internet data collection efforts.

Microsoft and Google have previously released data on government requests for user information, but they were barred from including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders. The NSA uses FISA orders as part of the PRISM program.

This is the first time that Facebook has released any statistics on government requests.

Facebook’s Ullyot said the law traditionally places "significant constraints" on the ability of companies like Facebook to even confirm or acknowledge receipt of these requests related to national security cases – let alone provide details of our responses.

“We’ve also made clear that we aggressively protect our users’ data when confronted with such requests,” he said. “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. And we respond only as required by law.”

Ullyot repeated the company’s call for governments to provide more details about surveillance programs and allow firms “to divulge appropriate information about government orders and requests that we receive, in a manner that does not compromise legitimate security concerns.”

"Especially in regard to Facebook, which until now had not published any statistics, some information is better than no information at all. And both the Facebook and the Microsoft numbers thankfully seem to confirm that they are not receiving mass or bulk requests for data," said Kevin Bankston, Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) senior counsel and director of CDT's Free Expression Project.

"We applaud Facebook and Microsoft for pressing the government for permission to take this important step, but it is only an intermediate step toward the ultimate goal: specific numbers about the particular types of government requests being received," Bankston said.

--This report was originally published at 7:31 a.m. and updated at 10:40 a.m.