US government is still demanding Facebook bulk user data, despite PRISM outcry

Facebook has been asked for bulk data on more than 300 web users by a New York court

Facebook has revealed details of a fresh mass-surveillance campaign in the US that saw a New York court demand bulk data on more than 300 web users.

Facebook deputy general counsel Chris Sonderby revealed details about the “unprecedented” court order in a blog post, claiming the request was the largest the firm has ever received.

“Since last summer, we’ve been fighting hard against a set of sweeping search warrants issued by a court in New York that demanded we turn over nearly all data from the accounts of 381 people who use our service, including photos, private messages and other information. This unprecedented request is by far the largest we’ve ever received,” he said.

“Of the 381 people whose accounts were the subject of these warrants, 62 were later charged in a disability fraud case. This means that no charges will be brought against more than 300 people whose data was sought by the government without prior notice to the people affected.”

Sonderby said the court obtained a gagging order blocking Facebook from disclosing details of the case that Facebook only managed to overturn on 20 July.

The tactic is alarmingly similar to that used by the US National Security Agency during its PRISM operations. The NSA used FISA requests to force a number of technology companies to hand over bulk amounts of metadata during its PRISM campaign.

The nature of the requests also block the companies involved from discussing them, meaning details of PRISM only came to light when ex-CIA analyst Edward Snowden leaked documents to the press revealing the NSA’s activities.

Since then Facebook has been working to allay customers’ fears and protect their data against government agencies. Sonderby promised Facebook users that the firm will continue to battle requests in court and called for further controls on how government agencies can collect data.

“We’ve gone to court and repeatedly asserted that these overly broad warrants – which contain no date restrictions and allow the government to keep the seized data indefinitely – violate the privacy rights of the people on Facebook and ignore Fourth Amendment safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures,” he said.

“We believe search warrants for digital information should be specific and narrow in scope, just like warrants for physical evidence. These restrictions are critical to preventing overreaching legal requests and protecting people’s information.”

Facebook is one of many technology firms working to protect its customers’ data. Google announced a sweep of security reforms, including plans to encrypt all data passing through its popular Gmail and Search web services, in a bid to help protect its customers from intelligence agencies in March.

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