Facebook is being asked for more data by governments but it can’t tell most users

Facebook reveals gag orders on user data requests

Facebook has seen an increase in the number of data requests from governments, stating that nearly two–thirds come with gagging orders.

In the second half of 2015, the social networking giant received 46,763 requests for user data, up 13 percent from 41,214 in the first half of the year, according to new statistics from the company.

For the first time, Facebook reported information about non-disclosure orders which do not allow Facebook to notify the user about a request. "Approximately 60 percent" of requests from U.S. authorities contained these gagging orders.

The number of items restricted for violating local law increased over the first half of 2015, to 55,827 items, up from 20,568. This was mainly due to one picture in France.

"One of the case studies explains that the increase in restricted content in this half is almost entirely due to one photo related to the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. The photo was alleged to violate French laws related to protecting human dignity. We restricted access to more than 32,000 copies of the photo, in France only, in response to a legal request from the French government," Facebook wrote in its blogpost.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

U.S. authorities were most active, requesting 19,235 pieces of user data. In 81 percent of those cases, Facebook produced some data. India was also very active and asked for 5,561 pieces of data. Facebook produced some data in just over 50 percent of all those requests.

Facebook is not the only company to release these kinds of reports. A number of other technology companies including Apple, Google and Microsoft all have transparency reports.

But tensions have been heightened between technology firms and governments following the tussle between Apple and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The authorities were trying to unlock the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters and asked Apple for help. Apple refused to help the authorities and provide a so-called "back door" into its software.

Facebook reassured users that it does not allow this to happen either.

"As we have emphasized many times, Facebook does not provide any government with 'back doors' or direct access to people's data. We scrutinize each request for user data we receive for legal sufficiency, no matter which country is making the request. If a request appears to be deficient or overly broad, we push back hard and will fight in court, if necessary," the social media firm said.