One of the trends from the industry-wide transparency report that’s worth looking at more closely is which countries are making requests for user data, to which companies, and on what scale. This post will break down these statistics and suggest some of the trends behind the numbers.
As I mentioned in the last post, the figures in transparency reports only refer to requests that foreign law enforcement make directly to companies, not requests through the mutual legal assistance treaty process. Requests that come through the MLAT process are treated like requests from US law enforcement, and are bundled into the statistics for the US. This means that the US figures are artificially inflated and I have therefore removed the figures for US requests from this analysis.
When it rains, it pours
The first thing to note is that the number of direct foreign requests is still low for most internet companies. Dropbox and Pinterest did not receive any direct foreign requests. However, the big four companies are being inundated with requests, with Microsoft receiving almost 30,000 requests in the last six months of 2013. Twitter is barely in the scene, with less than 723 requests (Twitter’s numbers are given as a range if they fall below 10, so this figure is only approximate).
Some companies, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and WordPress are not likely to experience the same scale of requests as the big four companies. This is because most of their content is intended to be publicly accessible. Law enforcement therefore should not need to contact the companies to access user content; they are more likely only to need to contact the companies in order to access subscriber information to identify anonymous account holders, or to seek preservation of account information before it is deleted. Other factors that can influence the number of requests from foreign law enforcement that a company receives include a company’s international presence, criminals’ preferences for particular platforms, and law enforcement’s familiarity with the particular company.
I have included Yahoo! in this analysis, but it is very important to note that the data in Yahoo!’s transparency report is quite different from the data in the other companies’ reports. There is still value in looking at Yahoo!’s data, but this is definitely a case of comparing apples with oranges. Yahoo! only reports on requests that are made by countries in which they have a legal subsidiary. This means that the requests referred to in Yahoo!’s report are made within those countries and are governed by each country’s domestic laws, not US law. For this reason, these requests can result in handing over content as well as subscriber details. The big question is what about the countries in which Yahoo! does not have a legal subsidiary – where are those statistics? Presumably there are Yahoo! users in countries in which Yahoo! does not have a legal subsidiary, and local law enforcement would try to request that data directly from Yahoo! in the US. However, Yahoo! does not seem to publish any information on the number of those requests and how they responded. Accordingly, we do not have an accurate figure to compare between Yahoo! and the other companies.
The data-hungry countries
The next breakdown that is interesting to consider is which countries are making requests to which companies. These charts show the top 10 requesting countries to Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Facebook. Some of this is unsurprising; Brazil, France, India and Germany have noticeable and reasonably consistent representation across the companies. Australia seems to punch above its weight, with requests from its law enforcement officers comprising about 5-6% of each company’s total requests. Singapore also makes a surprise entry in the Google statistics.
Some of the factors that could explain the different levels of requests from countries include:
- the penetration levels of these companies’ products in particular markets;
- local law enforcement’s level of awareness and competence in requesting online data; and
- whether law enforcement feel more able to make direct requests to companies (rather than going through the slower, more cumbersome process of mutual legal assistance).
Taiwan and Hong Kong figure in Yahoo!’s top ten, but not the other companies’. It is likely that this not only reflects the increased presence of Yahoo! in these countries, but also the skewed nature of the data set that Yahoo! provides because it only provides figures for countries in which there is a Yahoo! subsidiary.
Perhaps the standout issue in these statistics is the large number of requests to Microsoft from Turkey. Turkey does not even make it into the top 10 for other companies, but accounts for 21% of requests to Microsoft. This is particularly interesting given the political turmoil in Turkey during this period. Of course, the next interesting statistic to consider is how the companies respond to the requests that they receive. I will delve more into this issue in the next post.