Today Facebook has published it’s first transparency report, detailing law enforcement and national security requests from countries around the world. Britain requested data on 1,975 occasions, covering 2,337 users. In 32% of cases, Facebook declined to provide any data.
Thanks to the transparency reports of Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter we continue to learn more about the scale of law enforcement being able to access information held by internet companies. Contrary to the claims by various politicians that the internet is a wild west, we know that Britain receives more data than any other country about Skype users, and Facebook’s data shows that the UK is the third highest user of Facebook data in the world, after the US and India.
In his introduction to the data, Colin Stretch, Facebook General Counsel says that “We strongly encourage all governments to provide greater transparency about their efforts aimed at keeping the public safe, and we will continue to be aggressive advocates for greater disclosure.”
He is absolutely right. It is absurd that we learn more about Government surveillance from Microsoft, Google and Facebook than our own authorities. These figures were never mentioned during the Parliamentary debate on the draft communications data bill, nor in the annual report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s report.
It is particularly concerning that 32% of requests did not result in any data being provided, yet in theory these requests had been signed off as ‘necessary and proportionate’ by the police force making the request. This should be addressed by the Interception Commissioner and we will be writing to him to make this argument. It also highlights the ongoing questions about the skill base within the police to understand the data that is available – far, far more than ever before.
What we do not know from these figures is how many requests were made through the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty process (which involves a formal legal request being made through the US legal system) and how many were voluntarily complied with by Facebook. This is also the case with other companies.
Ultimately, it should not be for US companies to be the ones publishing data on how our own police forces are using these powers. It is impossible to have a realistic debate about ‘capability gaps’ and how powers are being used if we do not have the data, and the Government should be far more proactive in publishing information.
Given recent debate about both the police’s ability to access data and the scale of surveillance being carried out by intelligence agencies, transparency is the only way to ensure that Parliament can make an informed choice about new legislation and the public can have confidence powers are being used properly.