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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.