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Facebook releases government request data, students question online privacy

Facebook logo.
Facebook logo.

When you post something on Facebook, you expect your family and friends to read it — you don’t expect the government to read it.

On Feb. 3, Facebook’s General Counsel posted a news release stating that they would now be allowed to publish additional information about the U.S. Government’s requests for user information in cases ranging from criminal to national security issues. Before the government allowed companies to publish the requests, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Yahoo had filed motions to publish information on a number of requests received, which prompted the Obama administration to allow the release of the additional data.

In Aug, Facebook released a “Transparency Report,” which showed what information the government was gathering from their website during a six-month period. Prior to this report, data collected by the government from users’ profiles from their name to their IP address was not visible to the public. According to the Feb. 3 news release, Facebook can now publish the number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders, information sought through National Security Letters (NSLs), and the number of accounts affected to the public.

Sophomore Erica Veitch was glad to see that Facebook was striving for more transparency.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Veitch said. “Users must be informed.”

Facebook’s page “Information for Law Enforcement Authorities” states that information can be released according to the terms of service by Facebook and that law enforcement must have a valid subpoena, court order, and search warrant to have the name and length of service of a user.

Although Facebook is now reporting to the public the information that the government is gathering, not all websites are able to do so. For instance, startups are not able to report this information to the public for up to two and a half years due to the “New Capability Order” according to an Information Week article.

Facebook recently released a report including a chart (pictured above) of government requests. (Courtesy of Facebook)
Facebook recently released a report including a chart (pictured above) of government requests. (Courtesy of Facebook)

Ashley Morgan, a junior at Mills, thinks that it is reasonable for the government to be collecting data through social media.

“If a person voluntarily puts their information on the internet then they have to be prepared and willing to deal with the possible consequences,” Morgan said.

According to a NY Times article, the information the government requests from Facebook is primarily related to criminal cases such as robberies and kidnappings. However, requests may also extend to national security issues. The report provided by Facebook does not specify how many times the government searched for users’ information related to criminal cases or national security issues.

Graduate student Victoria Swift has mixed feelings about the government obtaining information from Facebook and other social media sites.

“[It’s] a double-edged sword,” Swift said. “It could be effective but could be used corruptly.”

Facebook will be publishing a report every six months and the numbers are reported in bands of 250 or 1000. For example, if a company were to receive 800 NSLs total they could say that they received fewer than 1000 requests for user information.

Senior Priscilla Falter feels that social media users must be prepared to have their information accessed.

“If you’re on Facebook you know your information is public,” Falter said. “Though you assume information to be somewhat private you assume the risk.”