Facebook Silent On Federal Data Requests
June 13, 2013

Facebook Mum On How They Deal With Federal Data Requests

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

In the wake of the public discovery of the National Security Agency´s (NSA) Prism program, tech companies who are said to participate in the surveillance initiative have been scrambling to address user concerns and explain their roles therein. On Tuesday, Google explained how they handle requests for data from the NSA, putting to rest some of the worries many users have about government snooping.

However, when Facebook was asked today if they´d reveal how they handle the same requests, they refused and said they could not disclose any information. Facebook spokesperson Jodi Seth said in a statement: “We are prevented by law from talking about anything related to FISA, including processes.” In other words, it´s not that they won´t disclose information, it´s because they can´t just yet.

In an email exchange with Mashable, Facebook first responded to questions about how they handle requests for data by redirecting them to an earlier statement asking the government for permission to be more transparent. In a later phone conversation, Jodi Seth explained why Facebook couldn´t give any additional details. The long and short of it: It´s the government´s fault.

"In the statement we're asking for the government to change the law, and if they did we would be willing to discuss these matters. But as of right now, we're prevented from doing that, and that is the law," Seth told Mashable.

The law doesn´t necessarily prevent companies from explaining how they handle requests for data (after all, Google did it on Tuesday), but according to an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the requests are normally tied down with gag orders that restrict the very admittance of such a request. In other words, a company would be legally allowed to disclose this information if they were able to acknowledge the very existence of the request in the first place.

“These gag orders are vastly over broad," explained Nate Cordozo, a staff attorney with the EFF who also spoke with Mashable.

"And if the court also put other conditions on the order that said that they couldn't discuss technical details, then that would be true, but we have no way of knowing without seeing the court order."

In a rush to protect their public image, Facebook, Google and others have publicly asked the government to be more transparent about the Prism program and explain that they don´t have direct access to these companies´ servers.

In a letter to the US Attorney General and FBI Director, Google´s chief legal officer David Drummond said that the government´s silence on the issue is only making people more suspicious that the NSA is spying on a great amount of Internet activity.

“However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation,” writes Drummond.

When they do receive a request for a user´s information through the Prism program, Google said they either deliver this information via secure FTP transfer or personally, by hand.

“When required to comply with these requests, we deliver that information to the US government — generally through secure FTP transfers and in person,” said Google spokesperson Chris Gaither in an interview with Wired.

“The US government does not have the ability to pull that data directly from our servers or network.”