Twitter bars spy agencies from analytics service that spots terror attacks

Twitter has cut off US intelligence from using a data miner able to rifle through user tweets without limit, a move likely to cause outrage in federal circles.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

(Image: file photo)

Microblogging platform Twitter has stopped off US law enforcement and intelligence services from using a data analytics service which is able to process and analyze the platform's tweets and messages.

On Sunday, a senior US official and other people close to the matter told the Wall Street Journal that Twitter's move, while not made public, has underlined the growing tension between technology companies and the US government.

The analytics service in question is not a direct offering by Twitter. Instead, Dataminr is a private firm which mines feeds and communication on Twitter for use by clients.

Twitter does own a five percent stake in the company, but as Dataminr counts US law enforcement as a client, Twitter has become concerned about being seen as too close or cozying up to federal agencies -- a concept which could seriously impact user trust.

Over the past few years, tech firms have butted heads with US law enforcement and lawmakers over a range of issues including terrorism, encryption and privacy.

Apple was most recently embroiled in a fight with US agents over breaking into an iPhone, Microsoft is fighting a warrant issued by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) requiring the tech giant to hand over email content, and Google has backed Apple in the debate against enforced mobile device backdoor installation for US intelligence purposes.

Peter Swire, a Georgia Institute of Technology law professor on data privacy told the publication:

"Post-Snowden, American-based information technology companies don't want to be seen as an arm of the US intelligence community."

Twitter does appear to be one of these companies. Snowden's disclosures had impact far beyond scrutiny of the US National Security Agency (NSA)'s practices, and has sparked debate on whether the average user has a right to privacy, whether encryption -- which can be difficult for law enforcement to tackle -- should be offered by device vendors -- and how companies can preserve basic security without intentionally making products vulnerable for the benefit of intelligence.

The microblogging platform says it has a long-standing policy which does not allow data to be sold to government agencies for spying purposes, and although Dataminr may have given US intelligence information for some time, the millions of tweets and messages sent every day across Twitter will now have to be reviewed by another means if the agency wishes to mine the platform.

Dataminr's capabilities can give intelligence agencies a valuable heads-up in some scenarios. For example, the company alerted the US to the Paris terror attacks as they unfolded, and other clients received word of Brussels roughly 10 minutes before mainstream media began reporting on the attacks.

Twitter is one of many social media outlets used by threat groups including IS to communicate -- and so investigators into the fanatical group will always gravitate towards these outlets to keep an eye on them -- but this data is generally public and is still up for grabs by government groups if they wish to use it.

However, perception is reality -- and Twitter being seen to help intelligence agencies spy on users would do the company no good in the public's gaze.

Top tips to stay safe on public Wi-Fi networks

Read on: Top picks

Editorial standards