If you're sitting at a computer in a public place and you notice someone looking over your shoulder, chances are you won't put up with it. However, some worry that the government is also "looking over shoulders" and compromising the privacy of Internet users. The government isn't as hungry for personal information as many think, however, as the statistics from the following companies show.
Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Facebook all released numbers concerning the number of requests from the NSA for information from user accounts. Requests to all the companies affected only about 59,000 user accounts in the first half of 2013, and about half of those were Yahoo accounts (somewhere in the ballpark of 30,000).
While those might seem like larger numbers, the numbers look a lot smaller when compared to the total number of monthly active Yahoo users around the world, which is about 800 million, according to TechCrunch.
The above numbers reflect "content" requests. The NSA submitted "non-content" requests as well, but the total number of such requests came to less than 1,000 for Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.
The requests sent to Google in early 2013 affected only about 9,000 user accounts (all numbers in the reports are approximate, since government regulations require that exact figures not be released). View that next to the hundreds of millions of Google accounts that are active monthly, and it seems like practically nothing. However, the numbers are growing. In the latter part of 2009, requests to Google affected fewer than 3,000 accounts.
Google is a leader when it comes to pushing for more government transparency. Quoted on the Washington Post website, Google says it plans to fight for the ability to reveal "the precise numbers and types of requests [they] receive."
The number of NSA requests to Microsoft affected roughly 15,000 accounts in the first six months of 2013, which was up from about 11,000 in the second half of 2011.
Microsoft is another company on the privacy advocacy warpath, and they expressed deep concerns about "secret attempts to hack into the data networks that connect tech company facilities, reports of which have infuriated industry executives". This supposed clandestine hacking by the government would never show up on reports, leaving the public in the dark about exactly how closely Big Brother is watching.
The fight being carried out by Microsoft and other tech giants reflects the concerns of their customers. Other things that these companies to do protect customer privacy involve developing secure websites and seeking to find communication solutions that do not leave customers' private information vulnerable.
Requests to LinkedIn from the government for information affected fewer than 250 accounts. This number reflects the choice that LinkedIn made with regard to the disclosure of information request statistics. The government gave companies two choices for revealing national security request numbers. Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook all chose to report "content" and "non-content" requests separately, which the government required be done in increments of 1,000. LinkedIn opted to lump both types of requests together in their report, which allowed them to report in increments of 250.
National security requests made to Facebook in early 2013 affected around 5,000 accounts. A blog post by Facebook's general counsel brought out that this number is "a small fraction of one percent of Facebook user accounts."
The blog post also commented on Facebook's intention to "continue to advocate for reform of government surveillance practices around the world, and for greater transparency…" However, companies such as Facebook do not hesitate to acknowledge that this is a sensitive issue that goes beyond privacy concerns. The government wishes to keep people safe, and that fact will remain at the forefront of future debates on the topic.
Keep it on the down low. Stay under the radar. Are such phrases losing their meaning as more and more threats to personal privacy arise? One thing is for sure: it's never a bad idea to turn around to see who is looking over your shoulder.
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