Facebook received national security letter for customer details in 2015

The number of requests for Facebook to hand over user data by governments around the world has risen in the first half of 2016, according to a new report by the social media giant.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

Facebook has revealed that it was sent a National Security Letter (NSL) from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in September 2015, forcing the social media giant to hand over the personal information of a particular user to the bureau.

The information requested in the NSL included the name, address, and electronic communications transactional records pertaining to the individual in question. However, Facebook was not required to provide the content of those communications.

Facebook was required to the keep the NSL under wraps due to non-disclosure obligations that have since been lifted.

Coinciding with the revelation of the September 2015 NSL is the release of the social media giant's Global Government Requests Report for the period of January to June 2016, which details the number of government requests it received for account data, as well as the number of items restricted for violating local law in countries where Facebook is available.

Total government requests for account data increased by 27 percent globally compared to the second half of 2015, increasing from 46,710 to 59,229 requests.

A majority of the requests, more than 40 percent, came from law enforcement in the US. This was followed by India, at 10.8 percent, and the United Kingdom came in third, at 9.2 percent.

Governments in France and Germany also ranked near the top, representing 6.4 percent and 6.2 percent of total requests, respectively.

Australia sat in the middle of the list -- beneath Italy, Brazil, and Canada -- representing around 1.3 percent of total requests.

Countries including China and Russia were absent from the list due to Facebook being banned.

About 56 percent of the requests received from US law enforcement had a non-disclosure order attached prohibiting Facebook from notifying the users in question.

The US government has previously argued that non-disclosure orders prevent tip-offs, which may result in leaks or destruction of data. But the provision was was found to be in breach of the First Amendment, and the government later appealed the ruling.

"We apply a rigorous approach to every government request we receive to protect the information of the people who use our services. We scrutinize each request for legal sufficiency, no matter which country is making the request, and challenge those that are deficient or overly broad," Chris Sonderby, Facebook deputy general counsel, wrote in an announcement on Thursday.

"We do not provide governments with 'back doors' or direct access to people's information. We'll also keep working with partners in industry and civil society to push governments around the world to reform surveillance in a way that protects their citizens' safety and security while respecting their rights and freedoms."

As for content restriction requests, the number of items restricted for violating local law decreased by 83 percent, from 55,827 to 9,663. Facebook explained that this is because last cycle's figures had been elevated primarily by French content restrictions of an image from the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

In June, Yahoo disclosed three unclassified NSLs, which the company received since 2013.

This followed transparency reforms introduced earlier this year by the USA Freedom Act, which determined that customer data requested by the government should no longer be kept secret.

The changes replaced Section 215 of the controversial Patriot Act, which was used by the National Security Agency (NSA) as the basis for collecting phone records of US citizens who were not necessarily under official investigation. Section 215 was also used to track financial data and to obtain companies' internet business records.

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