Social media giant Facebook recorded an 82 percent increase in the number of requests for user data made by the Hong Kong government in the first half of this year compared to the second half of last year.

The SAR government made 71 requests to Facebook for access to user information from January to June 2015, compared to just 39 requests from July to December 2014, according to the company’s biannual report released this week.

The number of user accounts involved in the requests more than tripled from 51 to 239 during the same period.

government facebook requests
Photo: HKFP.

Benjamin Zhou, project manager of the Hong Kong Transparency Report, a project run by the University of Hong Kong, told HKFP that the numbers showed the government is using social media more and more to assist law enforcement. Such a trend is alarming if the public is uninformed of why and how the data is being used, Zhou said.

“The increase may relate to the arrests of activists after the Occupy movement. For example, Tam Tak-chi of People Power was arrested on May 29 for a facebook post. But it is quite obvious that the public have no way to know about the truth at the moment. We don’t know whether the reasons provided by the government are justified, and if innocent people’s privacy [has been] invaded,” Zhou said.

Facebook and Google are among teach companies pushing for more transparency in regards to government access to their user data due to public concern over privacy.

The issue drew global attention after US whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked documents in 2013 revealing global surveillance programmes carried out by Washington.

government facebook requests
Former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents about Washington’s massive surveillance programmes. Photo: Wikicommons.

The total number of requests for Facebook data made by governments around the world rose 18 percent in the past half year. The US remains the country which made the most requests, asking 17,577 times concerning 26,579 accounts.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong government requests for Google user data remained steady after jumping 37 percent in the second half of 2013. The latest data from Google showed 367 requests were made between July and December 2014.

Zhou said more should be done to improve transparency in the government’s use of social media data.

“An independent body should be set up to judge if the government requests are appropriate and necessary before they are sent to service provider,” Zhou said.

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.