Police Requests for Social Media and Search Engine Information

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

In a recent essay posted on this site, I reported that while revelations of domestic spying by the National Security Administration (NSA) captured media and public attention, far less coverage has been given to the growing number of invasions of privacy by local and state police agencies. There, I reviewed a report by the Verizon Corporation (2014), which disclosed an unprecedented and growing number of police requests for information about Americans’ private communications as well as the potentially invasive nature of these police investigations. Based on the Verizon data, I estimated that every year there could be about 1 million official requests by law enforcement to telecommunications companies asking for the private information of American citizens. The data reported in that essay, however, did not report police requests for private information from social media or search engine sites like Facebook and Google.

Some recent disclosure reports by social media and search engine companies tells us a little bit more about the extent to which law enforcement is requesting private information about the users of these services. The table below summarizes some recent data from company discloser reports.

Estimates of Social Media Companies Disclosers to Government Officials

Online Law Enforcement degrees - Social Media Disclosures

*Where a six-month period was reported data was doubled to allow comparisons. **Range of percentages is presented where company delineated by type of request but did not report overall percentage and average is used were two different reporting periods were combined.

By way of example, the data in the table show that in one year alone, Tumblr received about 462 requests from government agencies for private information on their clients. These requests came almost entirely from U.S. law enforcement agencies, not the NSA. Law enforcement requests for information to corresponded to about 529 Tumblr URLs with the company providing client information 76 percent of the time, which involved 428 different blog URLs.

If we average the percentage of requests granted by all the companies shown in the table, one finds that these social media and search engine companies provided law enforcement officials with private client information in about 78 percent of the cases. This means that information was disclosed to law enforcement on at least 62,921 URLs in a single year alone. According to Pew Internet (2011), the typical Internet user has about 634 social ties in their overall communications network. If we assume that the typical Internet user has only half the social connections reported by Pew, then disclosure of information by these companies could have resulted in as many as 19.9 million people’s private information coming under some level of police inspection or review. Also unsettling is the fact that police are beginning to use Twitter posts to track the locations of people making posts. This level of surveillance represents a dramatic change in the capacity of the police to invade the everyday lives of Americans.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University



Published on June 03, 2014