The issue of how Big Tech companies handle user data has been a topic of debate for some time. Meta, Apple, Google, and Microsoft are often accused of collecting and selling the personal data of their users. However, the exact destination of this data and the extent to which companies and governments have access to it remain unclear. A recent study by Surfshark sheds light on the rising trend of government requests for personal user data from Big Tech firms.
The study, which focused on the period from 2013 to 2021, found that requests for personal data have been increasing over time. The year 2020 saw the largest year-over-year increase of 38%, followed by a 25% increase in 2021. The survey included Meta, Microsoft, Apple, and Google, with Meta having the most accounts of interest from authorities. Two out of five accounts hosted by Meta were requested (6.6 million) during the study period. Apple, on the other hand, had the fewest, with just 416,000 requested accounts from global authorities.
The report reveals that 60% of the requests for personal data came from authorities in the United States and Europe. However, the U.S. requested more than double the accounts per 100,000 users than all countries in the European Union combined. The top countries following the U.S. in terms of data requests were Germany, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and France.
According to the study, most data requests are related to criminal investigations and civil or administrative cases in which digital data is necessary. Gabriele Kaveckyte, a member of the privacy counsel at Surfshark, highlights that authorities are also exploring ways to monitor and tackle crime via online services. While this can help solve serious criminal cases, civil society organizations have expressed concerns about the promotion of surveillance techniques.
The tech companies’ disclosure rate of user data has increased by nearly 71%, with Apple leading the pack with an average disclosure rate of 86% in 2021 and 82% across the study period. However, Big Tech’s monopoly on user information has led to calls for decentralized solutions such as Web3 tools to safeguard personal data. Some have even suggested that Web2 platforms like Facebook and Twitter will become obsolete thanks to blockchain technology.
In February, a decentralized version of Twitter called Damus officially launched in app stores, offering a “social network you control.” Even Big Tech companies have begun to break into the Web3 space, with Meta unsuccessfully introducing nonfungible tokens on Instagram and Facebook. Despite these efforts, there is still much debate and uncertainty regarding the handling of personal data by tech companies and the extent of government access to such data.