Government agents in 74 countries demanded information on about 38,000 Facebook users in the first half of this year. Photo: AP
Facebook received 546 requests for information from Australian government agencies in the first half of this year, and provided information about account holders for 64 per cent of these requests.
According to statistics released by the social network for the first time, government agencies, including law enforcement, requested information on 601 accounts.
''Governments make requests to Facebook and many other companies seeking account information in official investigations. The vast majority of these requests relate to criminal cases, such as robberies or kidnappings. In many of these cases, these government requests seek basic subscriber information, such as name and length of service. Other requests may also seek IP address logs or actual account content,'' Facebook's website states.
The number of requests made by Australian agencies during the period was far smaller than the 12,000 requests made by the US government about 21,000 accounts, or the 3245 requests made by India's government about 2306 accounts. The German, UK, French, Italian and Brazilian governments also made substantial numbers of requests.
A spokeswoman for Victoria Police said its investigators request information from Facebook if they believe it was ''a relevant avenue of enquiry for a serious criminal offence''. She added that Facebook was ''very compliant'' in providing information for serious criminal offences and the data usually corroborated information collected through traditional detective work.
"E-Crime Squad detectives are yet to charge a suspect with offences as a result of evidence solely sourced from Facebook,'' she said.
In total, Facebook received requests for private information on more than 38,000 Facebook users in 74 countries in the first half of 2013 and complied with most requests, it said.
Google has been reporting the number of government requests for private data it receives since 2010, but this was the first time Facebook has published Australian statistics. Between July and December last year, the Australian government made 584 requests for information about Google and YouTube accounts, and received information for 65 per cent of requests. This was up from 155 requests to Google in the second half of 2009. Google publishes an online transparency report every six months.
Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch, said Facebook would share ''even more information about the requests we receive from law enforcement authorities'' in future reports.
''We scrutinise each request for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and require a detailed description of the legal and factual bases for each request. We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests. When we are required to comply with a particular request, we frequently share only basic user information, such as name,'' he wrote in a note published on the company's website.
The Australian Federal Police confirmed it makes requests for information from a range of external agencies, including Facebook, to assist with operational activities including criminal investigations. It said it uses all available tools including internet and social networking sites where criminal activities can occur.
Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other technology companies want to provide more information to the public on the requests they receive from governments in the wake of revelations of snooping by the US National Security Agency and its Prism program.