Twitter transparency report shows growing government demand for data

Twitter said on Wednesday that the U.S. government continues to make the most requests for information about the social network’s subscribers in a growing pursuit of data that has sparked protest by Internet firms.

In the first six months of the year, Twitter said federal authorities made 902 requests for user information, targeting 1,319 specific user accounts. That is up significantly from the same period last year when it requested information about 815 users, according to the company’s Transparency Report.

The U.S. government comprised 78 percent of all requests for user data.

The company didn’t disclose details of those requests, which ranged from a local sheriff's office seeking information to help in a kidnapping investigation to demands from national security officials.

The transparency report does not include data on requests authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Twitter and other Internet firms have urged the federal government to loosen its gag order on those requests, which are overseen by a secret court. In June, Google filed a legal petition to the FISA court asking to disclose more information about national security orders in its own transparency reports.

Otherwise, the tech companies and privacy advocates say, their transparency reports are of little use to subscribers.

“An important conversation has begun about the extent to which companies should be allowed to publish information regarding national security requests,” Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s manager of legal policy, wrote on a company blog.

“We believe it’s important to be able to publish numbers of national security requests — including FISA disclosures — separately from non-secret requests. Unfortunately, we are still not able to include such metrics,” he wrote.

The debate was sparked after The Washington Post and the Guardian of Britain printed information about a sweeping national surveillance effort known as PRISM. Secret government slides did not indicate that Twitter participated in the program, though several other tech giants, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and Apple, did.

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Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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