Cops Want More of Our Social Media Data Than Ever Before

Cops Want More of Our Social Media Data Than Ever Before
Photo: Chris McGrath, Getty Images

Law enforcement doesn’t have much trouble getting access to data from social media companies. In fact, over the first half of last year, authorities in the U.S. made close to 118,000 requests for user information from tech companies — a number that’s more than twice the number of requests thrown at these companies since 2015. And those numbers are only continuing to skyrocket.

That’s according to numbers from Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft that were first compiled by the Associated Press and confirmed by Gizmodo. All told, the four companies reported a collective 117,934 requests from U.S. law enforcement between January and June 2020, the most recent numbers available for tracking these kinds of requests. Collectively, the companies complied with 85% of requests, AP reports.

What becomes apparent if you look at these numbers over time is that these requests are piling up at an unprecedented rate; in the first half of 2015, these same four companies reported a collective 41,285 requests for user data, which is just slightly more than a third of the amount reported during the same period last year.

The exact form of data being requested can differ from request to request and from company to company. Facebook, for example, fielded the largest number of requests from U.S. authorities during the first six months of 2020: 61,528 total for both Instagram and Facebook user data, according to the company’s own numbers. Of these tens of thousands of requests, the vast majority are for what’s known as ‘legal process requests,’ which can include data like the name or address someone used to sign up for a Facebook account. While police can obtain Facebook and Instagram users’ IP addresses and message headers without a warrant, other data dug up through these requests, like photos or messages, require a search warrant, according to Facebook’s guidelines for law enforcement.

Then there’s Apple, which only received a fraction of the requests that Facebook did during this span: 11,363, per Apple’s most recent disclosures. Of these requests, most were what are known as “Account Requests,” that, per Apple, “generally seek information regarding customers’ Apple ID accounts, such as account holder name and address.” Meanwhile, cops made 39,536 requests to Google during the first half of 2020, and 5,507 to Microsoft.

As for why these companies (and others) are fielding exponentially more requests from authorities today than they were even a few years ago, the AP chocks that up to exponentially more people just… spending most of their time online. Recent Pew numbers back that up: One recent survey of adults across the country found that 31% of respondents reported being online “almost constantly,” with 48% saying they went online “several times per day.”