The amount of personal information held by firms like Google and Facebook has made them ripe targets for data-hungry governments and intelligence agencies. But the bull’s-eye on Yahoo’s back may be losing its appeal.
Government data requests served on Yahoo have been falling. The firm received about 18,000 requests for user data from governments worldwide during the first six months of 2014, the company revealed Thursday in its third report on such matters. The highest number of requests, which generally deal with criminal investigations, came from the U.S. at around 6,700.
The requests may include content like emails, Flickr photos, Yahoo address book entries, even posts on Yahoo Answers. “Non-content data,” meanwhile, includes information that is just as sensitive such as IP addresses, billing information, and the “to”, “from” and date fields in email headers.
That’s a lot of requests for personally identifiable and sensitive information. But it’s lower than the numbers in Yahoo’s previous reports. During the second half of 2013, Yahoo received about 21,000 user-data requests from governments worldwide. The U.S. came in first with nearly 6,600 requests.
And a year ago, there were nearly 40 percent more requests, at 29,000 total. Requests from U.S. governments were nearly double then at roughly 12,000.
Yahoo says it evaluates its requests carefully to minimize the disclosure of data. But still it disclosed data in around 12,000 instances in the first half of this year—well more than half the number of total requests. The company disclosed data for about 5,600 of the U.S. requests.
The U.S. requests include national security letters and requests for content made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for national security purposes. But Yahoo and other companies are currently not legally allowed to say more about them beyond providing vague ranges of 1,000.
The falling number of requests could suggest that Yahoo is a less compelling company for governments to target in comparison to its peers, at least when it comes to “requests” and not surveillance or interception.
Google just last week reported a 15 percent spike in total government data requests, at nearly 32,000.
Facebook has not yet reported its data requests for the first half of this year, but its tally for the second half of 2013 was up slightly at around 28,000.
Dropbox’s government data requests are going up too.
A falling rate of government data requests may also signal that intelligence agencies have other ways of pilfering people’s data. Part of the cache of leaked documents from former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Ed Snowden indicated that U.K. intelligence agency GCHQ had surreptitiously captured webcam images of millions of Yahoo users.
The decline of government data requests targeting Yahoo could be due to any number of issues, said Karsten Weide, an industry analyst at the research firm IDC.
Or, “it could just be a fluke,” he said.
Yahoo’s government data request figures do not include Tumblr, which Yahoo acquired last year. The number of Tumblr data requests at the moment is small: just 194 received in the first half of this year; 462 for all of last year.