English
07.03.2012

Authorities Focus on Facebook Users

It recently became public that Facebook worked with Austrian intelligence officials to uncover a neo-Nazi network in Carinthia. Official requests for information from law enforcement agencies to social media sites are normal in the United States. futurezone explains when and in what form Internet services are required to inform users of such requests.

A Facebook spokesperson has told futurezone that, “ Facebook’s goal is to strike the right balance between law enforcement and the privacy of users. As a responsible enterprise Facebook adheres to the law.” As part of this process, Facebook reviews each and every request from law enforcement, asking for a detailed request about specific information. If Facebook deems the request “appropriate”, then a minimal amount of information is provided. Facebook has drawn up its own requirements for law enforcement agencies. These can be found online, giving a rough overview of the company’s data request policy.

Data Privacy vs Law Enforcement
In certain cases there are exceptions. The Facebook spokesperson says, “A hypothetical case would be the kidnapping of a child where every second counts.” In such an emergency scenario, Facebook would feel obligated to provide information “which could save the life of a person or persons.”

This has been confirmed to futurezone by legal expert Günther Leissler, an attorney at the Schönherr law firm. “The ground rules state that Facebook, Google, etc. are, just as with any other user of personal data, committed to maintaining the secrecy and privacy of that data.” For the average citizen it is hard to judge if an official request for data is truly legal. It becomes even more complicated when such requests are transnational. Leissler says that even experts are often hard-pressed in determining if a request is justified. “Making it even more difficult is the fact that citizens often become aware of such requests only after the data has already been provided,” he says.

Leissler also believes that fears by users of social media that legal authorities will misuse or abuse data are generally unfounded, but he goes on to say that, “Data protection is a complex matter where legal authorities can also make mistakes.” In the whole of Europe, it is a generally understood principle that data protection is overruled by legal data requests by the authorities.

The danger from social networks is much more likely to come from other users. “Many people provide Facebook or other social media with information on friends, relatives and colleagues without asking them first,” Leissler explains. Such behavior is unacceptable and de facto becomes a “monitoring” of those directly affected.

Legal Requests on the Rise Worldwide
There are no official figures for requests by the authorities to social networking sites. Facebook refused to provide such details when asked by futurezone. However, some insight was provided last October in a “transparency report” issued by Google which stated that legal requests are steadily rising. Such legal requests for data have increased by up to 30 percent in bigger countries such as the United States, France and Spain. Requests in Germany were up sharply at an increase of 38 percent.

There are no such figures for Austria where, to date, the authorities have shown little or no interest in the data of Google users. This may soon change. Leissler points out, a security report issued by the Austrian Justice Ministry shows that police accessed telephone or email data in 6000 cases during 2010. Based on that, Leissler expects that legal requests for social media will increase in the future.

In the United States, companies which in the future provide easier data access are to be rewarded. In return, Internet companies will be provided a glimpse into the various aspects of cyber war. “The fact that Facebook recently provided information to Austrian law enforcement means one does not have to be a great prophet to see where this trend is heading,” says Leissler.