The US government is taking your Facebook data. But it doesn't stop there

"The problem is global and endemic. Nobody has clean hands."

With the glowing media attention the USA is currently enjoying, it would be very easy indeed to use Facebook’s first Global Government Requests Report to further stick the boot into an increasingly murky-looking administration.

In the stats released by the social network, America’s total volume of data requests dwarfs any other country’s, with between 11,000 and 12,000 requests involving up to 21000 individual accounts made during the first half of 2013.

But although tempting, it’s perhaps unwise to let recent outrage over NSA surveillance colour one’s judgement of the numbers. While the USA’s demands for Facebook data have been unsurprisingly vast, that’s no reason to exculpate other countries from their participation in the cultural tug-of-war over citizen's data.

The clue is in the name of Facebook’s report – specifically, the word global.

Even a cursory bout of cigarette-packet mathematics (see table below) reveals that, when the report’s data is viewed in the light of figures on national population and Facebook usage, America is not alone in its appetite for information on its citizens.

In terms of total requests made per million Facebook users in a country, for example, Germany is some way ahead, with 75.4 compared to the USA’s 69.3. In terms of fruitful requests per million users, the US leads the pack at 54.7 – but not by much: the UK manages 40.8.

Ben Werdmuller, CTO of US-based startup Latakoo and a proponent of the indieweb movement, which aims to challenge the data monopoly of the web giants, thinks that to chalk the Facebook figures up to the excesses of American national security is to ignore a wider problem.    

"Any finger-pointing at any one nation amounts to scapegoating. The problem is global and endemic. Nobody has clean hands. In Silicon Valley, we have to accept that the systems we've built are empowering both governments and corporations to more easily violate our privacy."

With a great volume of data, as Spiderman once memorably said, comes great responsibility.

Of course, it’s hard to go much further in analysing Facebook’s report than to acknowledge that there’s a problem, and that it’s a widespread one. This is hardly breaking news. The problem is that this report, while interesting, is simply a necessary PR response to a media storm over data security – its language is vague, and it is short on specifics.  

In particular, it would be very interesting to know how the total requests by country break down into those relating to criminal matters, and those relating to issues of national security. Such data, I suspect, could once again put the American statistics in a new light.

On this point, however, I’ll let Facebook have (nearly) the last word:

"While we view this compilation as an important first report, it will not be our last. In coming reports, we hope to be able to provide even more information about the requests we receive from law enforcement authorities."

We will be waiting eagerly.

Facebook's logo. Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.