Careful what you say, the spooks are listening

data spy security hack

Social media giant Facebook has published its Transparency Report,  which reveals how much governments are keeping an eye on you.

Across the world, Facebook received 78,890 requests for information from governments for the first half of 2017, 21% up from the same period in 2016, 32,716 of which were from the US alone. Of those 32,716 in the US, 57% included a non-disclosure order that prohibited the social media giant from notifying the user. The number of non-disclosure orders has increased by 50% year-on-year.

And before you get too shocked about the number of requests, 32,716 actually concerns 52,280 individual users. 85% of these requests were accepted by Facebook, with the most common request type being a search warrant issued by a judge on the ground the account might contain evidence of a crime.

Of course, it would only be fair to point the finger at Uncle Sam once some comparative figures have been disclosed as well. In the UK, 6,845 requests were made for information on 8,167 individuals. Admittedly the UK is substantially smaller than the US, though in India, a country with an extra billion or so people than the US, 9,853 requests were made for information on 13,752 individuals. In India, Facebook only bowed to 54% of the requests.

These numbers should hardly come as a surprise, and considering there have been nefarious government strategies in the past, some might suggest they are a little low. No-one likes to think the government is peering into their private lives without knowledge, but with this report Facebook is making an important move to demonstrate accountability. And naturally, it isn’t the only one which governments are requesting information from.

  Number of requests in H1 2017 (% of successful requests)
Company United States United Kingdom India
Google 187,280 (84%) 32,643 (74%) 41,187 (50%)
Apple 4,479 (80%) 1,064 (77%) 38 (61%)
LinkedIn 187 (71%) 2 (0%) 3 (0%)
Twitter 2111 (77%) 606 (79%) 30 (10%)
Yahoo 4,220 1,113 639

Something which should not be forgotten is the resistance from technology companies to complete these requests. There have been numerous occasions over the last couple of years where legal battles have erupted over the refusal of technology companies to submit to the demands of intelligence agencies and governments (here’s an example). The tech giants are far from being perfect, but they do generally look for every possible reason to turn down such a request.

That said, it would appear that violating user privacy might be considered okay if there is a commercial gain for the company itself. WhatsApp has found itself in trouble once again, falling foul of French privacy regulations.

French data protection watchdog, CNIL, has told WhatsApp it will face a fine if it doesn’t fall into line with French data protection rules within a month. It would appear WhatsApp has continued to share user information with parent company Facebook, despite being told this was a violation of data protection rules back in November 2016.

At the time, Facebook/WhatsApp said it had halted plans across Europe, but if the CNIL suspicions prove to be correct, that previous statement was a lie. The 2016 saga also followed another warning in 2015 for the same reason. It seems that Facebook’s crafty lawyers are just continually looking for new ways around the rules.

So every time you see a technology giant standing tall against a nosey government agency, claiming to be defending your data protection and privacy rights, just remember it might not have the same attitude if there is a commercial gain.

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