Why Facebook routinely discloses information on users to police and government - Dispatch Weekly

May 5, 2017 - Reading time: 4 minutes

News that Facebook leaks private information to third parties will likely not be a surprise to anyone.  In fact, last year Facebook was actually involved in a class-action lawsuit over allegations that the company systematically scans it’s users’ private messages on the social network without their consent, and makes a profit by sharing the data with advertisers and marketers.

As a consequence, it may come as a surprise that Facebook would refuse to do exactly that when Police departments ask for information regarding emergency requests.

An emergency request, as defined by Facebook is a situation where “they have a good faith reason to believe that the matter involves imminent risk of serious physical injury”. According to the UK Police, during the months of June to December 2016 the company received 1,000 emergency requests. And one in every five emergency requests are rejected by Facebook.

An emergency request by the police department is a request put in for disclosure of social media information from the individual being investigated.

Facebook’s own figures show that, this past year only, it turned down 20% of all emergency requests by the UK Police for user information on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram.


The scrutiny over the company’s rejection of emergency requests has grown since news that Adrian Ajao, the London citizen responsible for the March London Westminster attack, sent a WhatsApp message minutes before his actions at Westminster. This has caused greater pressure from news agencies for the big social media company to reveal information on users.

It is not the first time Facebook faces scrutiny over user privacy. Usually, Facebook faces criticism over information leakage to third party for their own profit. And whilst the social media channel is undoubtedly a source of information for police on suspected criminals, ethical boundaries on the issue must be considered.

Of the emergency requests received by Facebook last year, Facebook complied to respond to 80%.

Moreover, Facebook already complies with requests submitted as part of formal legal processes on a regular basis.In fact, Facebook complies more with requests submitted as part of formal legal processes, agreeing to release information in nine out of 10 of the 5,369 requests in the six months to the end of December.

If you’re suddenly weary about your privacy. Then you’re late to the party. But thankfully, there’s no need to panic about a sudden release of mass information. As mentioned previously, Facebook only releases information were there is serious believe of physical threat.

Moreover, Facebook has explained how the vast majority of these requests relate to criminal cases, such as robberies or kidnappings. And even so, in the majority of cases government seek only basic subscriber information. Such as name, registration, and  date and length of service.

Some requests may also seek IP address logs or account content, but Facebook has strict guidelines in place to deal with all government data requests.

smartphone-586903_960_720But Facebook is not yet being used as a bank of information for government and police departments, in fact Facebook insists how they have clear processes in place for law enforcement to request data from, including and even in emergencies.

For Facebook to provide information in these circumstances, it is first necessary for the law enforcement body to be able to provide sufficient information to locate the account, otherwise, it is not always possible for Facebook to release the information even if they want to.

This perhaps explains why Facebook may have to turn down requests at first to ask for more information from the police or security services before handing over the details about the account holders.

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.