The US government requests — and is granted — the most user data from tech companies compared to countries like the UK, France, and Japan: report

By Francis Agustin

Though data privacy is becoming increasingly sought after in the digital era, data show it still isn't fully guaranteed in many countries.

The US government asked for and received more user data from tech companies than any other country in 2020, according to a new report from internet security and technology firm Techrobot.

The study, which analyzes transparency reports from Apple, Facebook, and Twitter between 2019 and 2020, found growth in the number of requests for user data in 15 countries. The US made 66,598 requests for data in the first quarter of 2020, up 21% in the same period from the previous year. Of those requests, 76% of them — roughly 50,000 pieces of information — were subsequently shared by the tech companies. 

Many Americans remain skeptical and fearful that social media companies can give their data to a third party, including the US government. 

The US topped the most requests for Facebook and Twitter information, with 61,528 and 3,429 requests respectively. Facebook also saw six times the amount of data requests from the US than the second-highest country, Germany.

Overall, several countries saw significant data request numbers, like Denmark and South Korea, which both saw 400% increases in requests from 2019 to 2020, and Germany, which requested the most information from Apple.

However, governments are privy to user data in emergencies within the purview of the tech companies' terms of service — typically under a warrant in emergent situations or criminal investigations across international borders.

"Government request circumstances can vary from instances where law enforcement agencies are working on behalf of customers who have requested assistance," according to Apple, including in cases involving stolen or missing devices and credit card fraud. "Additionally, requests can relate to emergency situations where there is imminent harm to the safety of any person."

"We comply with government requests for user information only where we have a good-faith belief that the law requires us to do so," Facebook says about its transparency guidelines. "When we do comply, we only produce information that is narrowly tailored to that request."

In situations where it approves a government request, Facebook can produce basic subscriber metadata, like a user's name, payment information, email, and IP addresses, as well as stored content like photos, videos, and messages.

Twitter retains the right to disclose user information for both emergencies and routine legal demands issued by law enforcement, according to Twitter's guidelines on information requests.

"Where appropriate, Twitter will push back on requests for account information which are incomplete or improper, such as requests that are facially invalid or overbroad in scope," Twitter continued.

Over the past few years, tech companies have engaged in battles between each other and the US federal government over the confidentiality of user data. Earlier this month, the National Conference of State Legislatures outlined a comprehensive approach to privacy regulation, covering how data is collected, stored, disclosed, and deleted.