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Facebook gov surveillance data kept locked inside, er, Facebook

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Application security programs and practises

Facebook has released its first government transparency report, revealing – unsurprisingly – that once again India, the US and Blighty were the countries whose police were most likely to snoop on our online activities.

Ironically, anyone wishing to actually access the data, at the time of writing, needs a Facebook ID first.

The Mark Zuckerberg-run free content ad network said it was publishing its first Global Government Requests Report (you'll need to be a fully signed up member of Facebook to access this data) covering the first six months of 2013 to "make sure that the people who use our service understand the nature and extent of the requests we receive and the strict policies and processes we have in place to handle them."

It of course comes in the wake of the PRISM/NSA/Snowden scandal. And it offers few surprises.

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch explained:

We hope this report will be useful to our users in the ongoing debate about the proper standards for government requests for user information in official investigations. And 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.

The data shows which countries requested information from Facebook about its users; the number of requests received from each of those countries; the number of users/user accounts specified in those requests; and the percentage of these requests in which the company was required by law to disclose at least some data.

The US government submitted far more requests to Facebook than any other nation listed in the report. Stateside spooks and police wanted access to anything up to 21,000 Facebook accounts during the first half of this year as the result of about 12,000 requests.

In 79 per cent of cases, cops lawfully accessed some data from the network.

India put forward the second biggest number of requests (3,245) to Facebook involving accessing 4,144 individual accounts. The authorities there scooped up data from 50 per cent of those submissions.

Security services in the UK, meanwhile, accessed 2,337 accounts based on 1,975 requests. In 68 per cent of cases British cops slurped data from Facebook, citing British law.

Zuck's company – which has one of the largest data silos on the internet – was keen to show off its own "transparency" credentials while knocking governments around the world for being closed off.

Stretch said:

As we have made clear in recent weeks, we have stringent processes in place to handle all government data requests. We believe this process protects the data of the people who use our service, and requires governments to meet a very high legal bar with each individual request in order to receive any information about any of our users.

We scrutinise each request for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and require a detailed description of the legal and factual bases for each request. We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests. When we are required to comply with a particular request, we frequently share only basic user information, such as name.

But Facebook didn't share with us how many such requests it had rejected. Perhaps it will be a little more open with us about this when it publishes its next report – and let's hope that one isn't trapped inside Facebook. ®

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