Twitter accused of 'tracking' users across the Web

Summary:Twitter was quick to act when it was accused of recording its users across the Web amid an announcement that it will allow users to opt-out of online activity tracking.

Microblogging site Twitter has joined the Do Not Track party following an announcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

But Internet commentators threatened to overshadow by an "overt admission" that Twitter tracks its users' movements around the web.

Do Not Track allows users to block personal data from being shared with websites outside the social media service.

But the system is not perfect. Currently it works on a two-pronged approach: the browser you use must support Do Not Track and have it enabled, while the website you visit must also support the mechanism for blocking third-party cookies, which can be used to collect personal information and stitch together a users' online activity.

Though the FTC has not yet voted to officially support the industry-standard anti-tracking feature, it sang Twitter's praises for its decision.

For the announcement, Othman Laraki wrote on the Twitter blog:

"These tailored suggestions are based on accounts followed by other Twitter users and visits to websites in the Twitter ecosystem. We receive visit information when sites have integrated Twitter buttons or widgets, similar to what many other web companies --- including LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube --- do when they’re integrated into websites. By recognizing which accounts are frequently followed by people who visit popular sites, we can recommend those accounts to others who have visited those sites within the last ten days."

The allegations made by Dustin Curtis claim that every time a user visited a site with a follow or a 'tweet' button --- which is most sites on the Web --- Twitter records your online behaviour in a similar way to Facebook's tracking mechanism for its social graph 'like' buttons.

Twitter's apparent ethos by putting the privacy of its users' first --- particularly when the feds come-a-knocking --- shows sign of erosion as the company continues to grow in size and scale.

One Hacker News commentator said: "of course 'admitting' it can also be phrased as 'being fully transparent'." Curtis even notes, "that data will make better suggestions for accounts you might want to follow."

But the Do Not Track announcement enables users to opt out of Twitter's suggestions of who they should follow, and will not be displayed. Twitter's privacy policy has been updated to reflect the changes.

Twitter was quick to act, and made its position crystal clear.

A Twitter spokesperson said it categorically does not, nor would it "sell your web browsing history to advertisers". They also said Twitter "does not maintain browsing history" of users visiting sites outside the service. However, Twitter does "start the process of deleting your visits to pages in the Twitter ecosystem after a maximum of 10 days".

But as is the case with matters of user data and matters of activity tracking, the open ended "what if...?" question is enough to rattle the cages of privacy advocates and deter ordinary users.

Facebook once put its users' privacy first. And hours away from it making its debut on the Nasdaq, we have seen over the past three and four years, from the social network's infancy through its terrible teens --- quite literally --- the erosion of user privacy in favour of 'enhancing' the service.

Twitter is privacy and data conscientious. It will seemingly altruistically step in to protect its users from government snooping, but has warned that those committing illegal acts --- such as breaking 'super-injunctions' --- would be "on their own" in court.

But on occasion, like most companies, it royally screws up. Twitter was caught in the iOS contact list controversy after it was found to upload users' contact data without explicit consent, and could hold it for up to 18 months.

And as Twitter marks its 10 million user milestone in the U.K., the service said it would work closer with "the government... and law enforcement".

In the same week, the U.K.'s attorney general warned that users on Twitter were not beyond the law. "The idea that you have immunity because you're an anonymous tweeter is a big mistake.” Dominic Grieve MP said.

Image credit: Twitter via CNET.

Topics: Browser, Social Enterprise, Software Development

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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