Thing is, it's complicated.
After former CIA worker Edward Snowden leaked intel that the National Security Agency was using a program called PRISM to access info from Google, Facebook, and other tech giants, the social network has pressed the government to allow it to be more transparent about the national security orders it needs to comply with.
Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot said the firm is the first to be allowed to divulge information about U.S. national security-related requests, including National Security Letters and those made by secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts. FISA is the legislation that allows the government's snooping program to operate.
As of now, the government will only allow Facebook to reveal numbers in aggregate and as a range. In the six months to Dec. 31, 2012, Facebook received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests from all U.S. government entities, requesting data for between 18,000 and 19,000 user accounts.
Facebook noted the nature of the requests covers matters as broad as missing children investigations, tracking fugitives, assault probes, and terrorist threats. Facebook often rejects such requests in an effort to protect user data, it says, so we can assume not all of those 18,000 to 19,000 accounts were made accessible to the government. Bear in mind that figure includes FISA and National Security Letter orders, which Facebook will have to comply with.
That's all Facebook is able to reveal right now, but it's a start towards more transparency about the data the government is gaining access to. Ullyot noted Facebook is pushing for more transparency, "so that our users around the world can understand how infrequently we are asked to provide user data on national security grounds."
Government surveillance of Internet services has been subject to much discussion over the last week since PRISM's existence was first revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, and ex-employee of an NSA contractor.
Many lawmakers and companies are battling the program. Eight senators hope to declassify the FISA courts that allowed PRISM's existence. A number of firms and organizations, including Reddit, Mozilla, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called for a congressional committee to look at the NSA’s surveillance operations and make public "the extent of this domestic spying.”
With Facebook being allowed to divulge some of the data, just like Twitter did in its voluntary transparency reports, we can likely expect more information related to the number of data requests the other companies named in the PRISM program—including Google, Skype owner Microsoft, and Apple—to be revealed in the coming days.
It may yet be the case that Facebook is allowed to divulge more accurate numbers on the requests it has received, and how many it granted. For now, these rough numbers are the best we're getting.
Photo via westm/Flickr