The number of data requests the Hong Kong government made to tech giant Facebook increased by 68 per cent during first half of 2016, compared to the second half of last year.

The number has been rising steadily since the the social network began publishing the number of requests in 2013. In the first six months of 2016, there were 190 requests, compared to 113 between July and December 2015.

File photo: AFP/Ed Jones.

Facebook said in its report that it only responds to valid requests relating to criminal cases.

“We scrutinize each request for legal sufficiency, no matter which country is making the request, and challenge those that are deficient or overly broad,” wrote Chris Sonderby, Deputy General Counsel of Facebook.

The increase globally was 27 per cent.

Between January and June 2016, only 45.79 per cent of the total requests resulted in some data being produced by the company.

Facebook also released information about a new type of request for the first half of 2016 – 20 “preservation” requests involving 31 users or accounts. Facebook is able to preserve data pending notice of formal legal proceedings.

“[W]hen we receive a preservation request, we will preserve a temporary snapshot of the relevant account information,” wrote Sonderby. “We do not disclose any of the preserved records unless and until we receive formal and valid legal process.”

Mostly police requests 

The report did not specify which government bureaus or departments requested the data. But according to the Hong Kong Transparency Report issued by the University of Hong Kong, the police accounted for most of the user data requests from the government to technology companies.

Hong Kong police. File photo: HKFP.

In the second half of 2015 and the first half of 2016, there was one case each respectively whereby Facebook restricted access to one item of content pursuant to a request from the Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Office.

Sonderby also emphasised that Facebook does not provide governments with “backdoors” or direct access to people’s information.

“We’ll also keep working with partners in industry and civil society to push governments around the world to reform surveillance in a way that protects their citizens’ safety and security while respecting their rights and freedoms,” he wrote.

‘Social upheavals’ 

Craig Choy, a spokesperson for the Progressive Lawyers Group, told HKFP that the increase correlates with an increase on the reliance of Facebook for organising social movements. “The increase may also be because of some social upheavals happened in that particular period,” he said.

democracy cy leung protest
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Choy said the preservation requests were likely made as the authorities would often make written or oral requests by letter, or by phone, asking for information for crime prevention or detection under the law.

“However, usually it is too broad… Companies with a sensible in-house legal counsel would reject such requests and ask the authorities to provide more details and a court order for information.”

“That may be reason to justify the preservation of some snapshots for the purpose of crime prevention or detection which is exempted under the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.”

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.