Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Science & Tech
29 August 2013updated 01 Jul 2021 12:13pm

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

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

By Fred Crawley

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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

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.

Topics in this article: