Malta requested more Facebook data per citizen than any other country

According to statistics published by the social media giant, Maltese authorities made the highest number of requests for user information in 2016, with Malta as 29th highest in absolute terms

Local authorities made the highest number of requests for user information, per capita, from Facebook in 2016, according to transparency data published by the social media giant. Malta ranked 29th highest in absolute terms. 

Twice a year, Facebook, along with other service providers like Google, Twitter, Dropbox, Apple, Microsoft and LinkedIn, publishes statistics on the number of requests received by governments and low enforcement agencies for user data information. 

The number of requests made by Malta are comparable to those of significantly larger countries, and social media data appears to have featured more frequently in investigations undertaken by local authorities, with Facebook and Google requests being by far the most common. 

A relatively high number of requests were also made to Google. 

Speaking to MaltaToday, Police Cybercrime Unit head, Timothy Zammit said that “99.9% if not a 100%” of requests made to Facebook and all other service providers came from the cybercrime unit, which investigated 877 cases in 2016.

The reports show the number of requests made by different countries and the rate at which those requests were approved, by the respective service provider. In instances where a request does not fulfil the necessary criteria, it is rejected.

When processing government requests for user data Facebook says it has “strict processes in place”. In Facebook’s own words:  ”Every request we receive is checked for legal sufficiency. We require officials to provide a detailed description of the legal and factual basis for their request, and we push pack when we find legal deficiencies or overly broad or vague demands for information. We frequently share only basic subscriber information.”

Similarly, if asked to restrict content, authorities must provide Facebook – which also owns WhatsApp and Messenger – with a legal basis for the request. 

According to the data, Malta made a total of 319 requests for data in 2016, having had 79 – roughly 25% - rejected outright. While the number of requests for data have almost doubled since 2013, the proportion that are rejected has decreased from 39% to 25%, meaning that while authorities are asking more often, Facebook is also considering those requests to be valid, more often. 

The United States topped the list of requests at 49,868, followed by India and the United Kingdom with 13,613 and 11,835 respectively. Surprisingly, despite its small size, Malta made more requests than countries including South Korea, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark and Romania. 

In fact, if one were to take the data and shrink the number of each country’s requests proportionally, to what they would be like if the country’s population was identical to Malta’s, Malta’s 319 requests would top the list, followed by the United Kingdom with 78. 

 “The reason behind the observation is two-fold,” Police Cybercrime Unit head Timothy Zammit told MaltaToday, adding that “99.9% if not 100%” of the requests had been made by the police. 

“First of all, we look at petty offences as something which might snowball if you don’t address it when still small, and you might also end up with a situation where things escalate, or someone decides to take the law into their own hands.”

Another reason for the high number of requests, he said, was to do with the fact that the police were duty-bound to investigate any report filed with them.

 “We’re a small society, so if somebody says something about us online, we take it personally and people want an immediate remedy. In some cases, they’ll report directly to Facebook but again, as a society, we tend to turn to the police immediately.”

Zammit stressed that service providers were not obliged to pass information on to local authorities and that, in addition to the number of requests, one needed also to consider the rate at which requests were accepted. 

He said that the Cybercrime Unit had developed a relationship with Facebook over the years and had understood how to lodge requests that were more likely to be accepted. 

 “From their end, there is also a better understanding of the situation in Malta,” said Zammit, adding that the police are sometimes required to provide Facebook with translations and the necessary local context.

Google requests have also increased rapidly since 2013. Malta made 158 requests in 2017 alone, already exceeding the 139 made in 2016. The number was as low as 54 in 2013, reflecting ever-increasing use of social media and the internet. 

Unlike with Facebook, however, where the rate at which requests were accepted increased, Google request success rate has dropped significantly since 2013, falling from 83% to 38%.

Zammit said the Cybercrime Unit was less familiar with Google representatives as it was with Facebook, the latter having sent people over to Malta on more than one occasion to discuss matters with the Police. 

He specified that with Google, almost all requests regarded Gmail accounts, normally involving suspicions of third parties gaining access to an email account, or a particular address being used to harass or defraud someone. 

Moreover, Zammit said that the European Commission had also held discussions with Google which saw the service provider adopt somewhat of a “one size fits all” approach in dealing with EU member states. 

 “We have lost some of the arrangements we had related to the specificity of our cases,” he said, adding that it was in both sides’ interest to understand each other better. 

Zammit added that Facebook and Google were by far the most frequently dealt with platforms.

In fact, a total of 10 requests were made by police to Dropbox, Twitter and LinkedIn combined.