Skip to main content

Facebook, Microsoft disclose information on user data requests

By Faith Karimi, CNN
updated 11:29 AM EDT, Sat June 15, 2013
  • NEW: "Extraordinarily small number" of accounts subject to legal process
  • Google says grouping information is a "step back" for users
  • The disclosure comes amid a firestorm against companies for releasing user data to the U.S.
  • Obama administration officials have pushed back against criticism

(CNN) -- Facebook and Microsoft disclosed that they received thousands of requests for user data from government agencies in the United States in the last half of 2012.

Facebook said it got between 9,000 and 10,000 requests targeting between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts during that period.

"These requests run the gamut -- from things like a local sheriff trying to find a missing child, to a federal marshal tracking a fugitive, to a police department investigating an assault, to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat," Ted Ullyot, Facebook's general counsel, said in a post Friday night

"With more than 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide, this means that a tiny fraction of 1% of our user accounts were the subject of any kind of U.S. state, local, or federal U.S. government requests."

Mueller: 'No content' taken from calls
Could the NSA leaker defect to China?
Hayden on NSA surveillance program
Outsourcing American secrets

The disclosure comes amid a firestorm over revelations that both were among companies that turned over user data to the National Security Agency's web surveillance program.

The U.S. government has a sweeping system for monitoring emails, photos, search histories and other data from major American Internet companies, including Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Skype.

"The Department of Justice reached agreements with certain providers that will allow the publication of additional data pertaining to U.S. government requests for user data in compliance with legal process," a Justice Department spokesperson told CNN Saturday. "Under these agreements, the providers plan to begin publishing aggregate totals of criminal and national security requests received from federal, state, and local governments over a six-month period."

More transparency

Both companies got government permission to publish the reports as long as they were grouped with all others requests, including from state and local agencies. The grouping of the data made it hard to single out those made for national security reasons.

Google publishes a transparency report using requests from governments worldwide. It said grouping information is a "step back" for users.

"We have always believed that it's important to differentiate between different types of government requests," Google said in a statement. "... Our request to the government is clear: to be able to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately."

Facebook said it has been in talks with U.S. officials to seek greater transparency on national security-related orders.

In an effort to combat criticism, Microsoft also disclosed information on its data requests Friday night.

"For the six months ended December 31, 2012, Microsoft received between 6,000 and 7,000 criminal and national security warrants, subpoenas and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 consumer accounts from U.S. governmental entities (including local, state and federal)," said John Frank, Microsoft's vice president.

The Snowden index: Opinions about the NSA leaker

Both companies said the information they were allowed to publish falls short of what users need to better understand the issues.

"We are permitted to publish data on national security orders received, but only if aggregated with law enforcement requests from all other U.S. local, state and federal law enforcement agencies," Frank said.

The Justice Department spokesperson said, "These aggregate totals include all instances in which a government entity has served lawful process on the providers - be it a grand jury subpoena or search warrant in a criminal matter, a national security letter, a court order under FISA, or another type of request pursuant to statutory authorization.

"The publication of these numbers will show that an extraordinarily small number of accounts are subject to legal process. These agreements reflect our continued commitment to working with providers to afford greater transparency to the public while preserving confidentiality required for law enforcement or national security reasons."

Obama administration officials have pushed back against criticism on the domestic surveillance in the aftermath of the classified leaks last week that disclosed details of covert surveillance programs.

Edward Snowden, 29, has admitted leaking the classified documents about the covert programs.

Top-secret program

Holder: Leaks 'extremely damaging'
FBI Dir.: Snooping might have stopped 9/11
Vetting federal contractors

The top-secret program is legal, conducted properly and could have helped detect a 9/11 hijacker had it been in place before the 2001 terrorist attacks, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Thursday.

Civil liberties groups and legislators are among critics condemning the program as government overreach beyond the intention and limits of the Patriot Act originally passed in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks.

"It's my fear that we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state, collecting billions of electronic records on law-abiding Americans every single day," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the judiciary panel.

Conyers said he is co-sponsoring legislation that would address "the overbreadth and impenetrability of the surveillance programs."

Wrong public perception?

But legislators of both parties joined Mueller in defending the programs.

"This program does not target innocent Americans in any way, shape or form," said House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. "These programs have helped keep America safe. They have enhanced our ability to go after terrorists who want to bring harm to the American people."

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said public perception of the government data mining was wrong.

One of the programs, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, collects billions of phone records to create a database for use in tracking suspected terrorists. Another under Section 702 of the Patriot Act deals with computer activity and other information of foreigners.

CNN's Caleb Silver, Joe Sutton and Jessica Yellin contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
Data mining & privacy
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Sun June 23, 2013
He's a high-school dropout who worked his way into the most secretive computers in U.S. intelligence as a defense contractor.
updated 8:26 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Traitor or patriot? Low-level systems analyst or highly trained spy?
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
What are the takeaways from Snowden's NBC interview? You might be surprised.
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Months after accepting asylum in Russia, Snowden asked Putin about Moscow's own surveillance practices.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
A federal judge has refused the Obama administration's request to extend storage of classified NSA telephone surveillance data beyond the current five-year limit.
updated 8:44 PM EDT, Sun March 9, 2014
From his sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange said that everyone in the world will be just as effectively monitored soon -- at least digitally.
updated 8:39 PM EDT, Mon March 10, 2014
In a rare public talk via the Web, fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden urged a tech conference audience to help "fix" the U.S. government's surveillance of its citizens.
updated 11:55 PM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
The White House is "very disappointed" that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
updated 8:57 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Spies with surveillance agencies in the U.S. and U.K. infiltrated video games like "World of Warcraft" in a hunt for terrorists "hiding in plain sight" online.
updated 7:39 AM EDT, Fri August 2, 2013
Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden both held jobs that gave them access to some of their country's most secret and sensitive intelligence. They chose to share that material with the world and are now paying for it.
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
The NSA's controversial intelligence-gathering programs have prevented 54 terrorist attacks around the world, including 13 in the United States.
updated 2:54 PM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
You've never heard of XKeyscore, but it definitely knows you. The National Security Agency's top-secret program essentially makes available everything you've ever done on the Internet.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Sun August 18, 2013
You may have never heard of Lavabit and Silent Circle. That's because they offered encrypted (secure) e-mail services, something most Americans have probably never thought about needing.
updated 2:54 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
"Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector, anywhere ... I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone."
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
President Barack Obama responds to outrage by European leaders over revelations of alleged U.S. spying.
updated 3:54 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Browse through a history of high-profile intelligence leaking cases.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
Former President George W. Bush talks Snowden, AIDS, Mandela and his legacy.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Wed June 26, 2013
Edward Snowden took a job with an NSA contractor in order to gather evidence about U.S. surveillance programs.
updated 6:47 AM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
With reports of NSA snooping, many people have started wondering about their personl internet security.
updated 9:52 AM EDT, Wed August 14, 2013
Click through our gallery to learn about other major leaks and what happened in the aftermath.
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Sun June 9, 2013
What really goes on inside America's most secretive agency? CNN's Chris Lawrence reports.