Microsoft is jumping on the transparency report bandwagon. After Google and Twitter issued reports on how they respond to law enforcement requests for customer information, Redmond is providing a slew of details about requests into its own services -- and says it is getting more requests than Google.
The 2012 Law Enforcement Requests Report provides data on the number of requests Microsoft received from law enforcement agencies around the world relating to its online and cloud services and how the company responded to those requests.
All of Microsoft's major online services are covered in the report, including, for example, Hotmail, Outlook.com, SkyDrive, Xbox Live, Microsoft Account, and Office 365. Microsoft is also assembling similar data relating to Skype, which Microsoft acquired in October 2011.
"As we continue to move forward, Microsoft is committed to respecting human rights, free expression, and individual privacy," Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president of Legal Corporate Affairs at Microsoft, said in a statement. "We seek to operate all of the services we own in a manner that's consistent with our Global Human Rights Statement and responsibilities as a member of the Global Network Initiative."
What the Numbers Reveal
Last year Microsoft received 75,378 law enforcement requests for customer information, and these requests potentially affected 137,424 accounts or other identifiers. Of those, 2.1 percent, or 1,558 requests, resulted in the disclosure of customer content, such as e-mail text or photos.
Of the 1,558 disclosures of customer content, more than 99 percent were in response to lawful warrants from courts in the United States. In fact, there were only 14 disclosures of customer content to governments outside the United States. These were to governments in Brazil, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand.
Of the 56,388 cases where Microsoft disclosed some non-content information -- data such as e-mail addresses, user names and IP addresses -- to law enforcement agencies, more than 66 percent of these were to agencies in only five countries. These were the U.S., the United Kingdom, Turkey, Germany and France. For Skype, the top five countries accounted for 81 percent of all requests. These countries were the U.K., U.S., Germany, France and Taiwan.
Roughly 18 percent of the law enforcement requests resulted in the disclosure of no customer information in any form, either because Microsoft rejected the request or because no customer information was found. Microsoft doesn't have this information for Skype for 2012 because its data was not retained in this form, but we will for 2013 and the future.
Why So Much Transparency?
Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, said it's important that major Internet companies release these reports.
"These companies can become major surveillance tools of corrupt governments or overzealous law enforcement. And these reports provide the public, activists and civil libertarians with valuable information," Sterling told us.
"The Microsoft effort seems clearly 'inspired' by Google in this case. The claim that it's getting more requests than Google may be true in fact -- perhaps Bing is perceived as an easier 'target' -- but it equally comes off like a competitive claim, which is silly."