Facebook says it has new permission to talk about government surveillance of users

MENLO PARK, Calif. – Facebook’s top attorney said Friday night that after negotiations with national security officials the company has been given permission to make new but still very limited revelations about government orders to turn over user data.

Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s general counsel, said in a statement Friday that Facebook is only allowed to talk about total numbers and must give no specifics. But he said the permission it has received is still unprecedented, and the company was lobbying to reveal more.

Using the new guidelines, Ullyot said Facebook received between 9,000 and 10,000 government requests from all government entities from local to federal in the last six months of 2012, on topics including missing children investigations, fugitive tracking and terrorist threats. The requests involved the accounts of between 18,000 and 19,000 Facebook users.

Facebook was not allowed to make public how many orders it received from a particular agency or on a particular subject. But the numbers do include all national security related requests including those submitted via national security letters and under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which companies had not previously been allowed to reveal.

Ullyot said the company wanted to reveal the information because of “confusion and inaccurate reporting” on the issue, and to show that only “a tiny fraction of one per cent” of its 1.1 billion users have been affected.

In a rare alliance, Facebook, Google and Microsoft Corp. have been pressuring the Obama administration to loosen their legal gag on government surveillance orders.

The companies have sought to distance themselves from the Internet dragnet code-named “PRISM” that was revealed in leaks last week.

Google said late Friday that it was waiting to be able to reveal more specific and meaningful information before releasing its surveillance figures.

“We have always believed that it’s important to differentiate between different types of government requests,” Google said in a statement. “We already publish criminal requests separately from National Security Letters. Lumping the two categories together would be a step back for users. Our request to the government is clear: to be able to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately.”

An after-hours phone message left for Microsoft spokesman Pete Wootton was not immediately returned.

Facebook repeated recent assurances that the company scrutinizes every government request, and works aggressively to protect users’ data. Facebook said it has a compliance rate of 79 per cent on government requests.

“We frequently reject such requests outright, or require the government to substantially scale down its requests, or simply give the government much less data than it has requested,” Ullyot said.” And we respond only as required by law.”