Twitter's latest transparency report is out, and the company's new data show a 46-percent jump in the number of government requests for user information since the company issued its last report covering July to December of 2013. That most of the requests, about 61 percent, originated in the United States is also hardly unexpected; for the first time, however, the company has broken down its data on a state-by-state basis. Only two states, Idaho and Wyoming, saw zero requests.
Click for an interactive version that includes a legend.
Governments request information from tech companies for a number of reasons. Law enforcement, primarily, but sometimes also during emergencies (things like geolocation data can be useful in that context). Twitter says it's asked the Justice Department for more freedom to report national-security-related requests, which are treated separately from non-national security requests. But with the Justice Department remaining largely silent on the question, Twitter said in a blog post that it was "weighing our legal options" for enhancing transparency further.
Since its last transparency report, Twitter says eight new countries have begun asking for user data, for a total of 54.
According to a list provided by Twitter, the new countries requesting user information include Albania, Bahrain, Chile, Egypt, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago. Most of these countries, with the exception of Albania and Sri Lanka, asked for information solely via emergency disclosure requests, defined as an incident involving imminent personal danger of death or serious injury.
This points to an interesting puzzle, one that probably isn't unique to Twitter but that may turn out to be an unexpected side effect of transparency reports nonetheless: A growing number of countries find it useful to ask tech companies for customer data. What explains the spread isn't clear. Maybe governments are learning from each other that online user information is a useful tool. Maybe as adoption of technology (and of specific services like Twitter) grows in other countries, there's more information to be mined from people the government would be investigating anyway. Or maybe the very proliferation of transparency reports is drawing attention to this option for governments around the world.
Whatever the reason, it's something to keep an eye on. As will tech companies, too.