Facebook's disclosures remind us not to count on privacy
In releasing its first report on government requests for user information, Facebook is reminding businesses and consumers that use of the Internet today requires self-censorship.
The report released last week shows also that the U.S. government—which is the single biggest requester with between 11,000 and 12,000 requests—is only one of many seeking data from Facebook. Total non-U.S. requests numbered about 15,000 during the first half of this year.
Facebook's Global Government Requests Report is meant to assure users that the company is doing everything it can legally to protect their privacy. Google does the same through its biannual Transparency Report.
The number of users specified in the requests was from 20,000 to 21,000. The majority of the requests were related to criminal cases, such as robberies or kidnappings.
Facebook handed over at least some data in 79 percent of the requests, showing that Facebook refused to release data when it could.
"We scrutinize 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," said Colin Stretch, Facebook's general counsel. "We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests."
Nevertheless, neither Facebook nor any other company can refuse a legitimate government request, so it is up to users to think before posting and to avoid becoming friends with anyone who seems shady.
Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner, said people should also follow their employer's policies for using social networks, so they don't say anything that can taint the company's brand.
However, government monitoring should not stop organizations from using Facebook for marketing, sales leads and customer support, said Alan Lepofsky, analyst for Constellation Research. "Engaging with prospects and fans would rarely involve confidential information that anyone should be worried about the government having access to," Lepofsky said.
Once the conversation with a potential or current customer becomes more detailed, the interaction should be taken off Facebook, he said. At that point, all information should be stored internally in a customer relationship management system or a tracking tool for customer support.
Experts applauded Facebook's decision to release the report in order to give users a realistic view on online privacy. However, Rick Holland, analyst for Forrester Research, said Facebook was being selective about its transparency.
Rather than just disclose government requests for data, Holland would like to see Facebook provide a lot more details on how and what it shares with advertisers, including information on customers and prospects gathered from the pages of businesses.
"I don't know if there's any risks to companies that way, but behind the scenes, I'd love to see the same level of transparency on how they're making money on [the data]," Holland said.
Tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, are pressing the U.S. government for more flexibility in categorizing information requests, particularly in light of recent revelations of massive data collection on Internet activity by the U.S. National Security Agency.
Companies are prohibited from providing anything more than a range of the number of NSA requests and of affected user accounts.