Twitter is making headlines for reportedly deciding to cut off U.S. intelligence services from using Dataminr, a data analytics service partly owned by Twitter that analyzes huge volumes of social media content to detect emerging news and trends in real time. The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that the move was confirmed by a senior U.S. intelligence official and other people familiar with the matter.
Interestingly, although Dataminr‘s business involves analyzing Twitter traffic for various clients, the service is not directly offered through Twitter; Dataminr is a private firm in which Twitter owns a five percent stake.
Dataminr counts U.S. law enforcement as a client, and Twitter has become concerned about being seen as too close or cozying up to federal agencies, a perception that could impact user trust, our partner site ZDNet reports.
For its part, Twitter made a point to clarify how user data is shared with third parties.
“Dataminr uses public Tweets to sell breaking news alerts to media organizations such as CBS News and government agencies such as the World Health Organization, for non-surveillance purposes,” Twitter said in a statement. “We have never authorized Dataminr or any third party to sell data to a government or intelligence agency for surveillance purposes. This is a longstanding Twitter policy, not a new development.”
A CIA spokesperson would not respond to specific questions from CBS News, but did say that “the value of open source to CIA’s mission has never been greater.”
“The open source environment includes many sources of information — including social media — that are increasingly valuable in today’s world,” the agency said. “Open source data has proven critical in providing indications of pending plots by ISIL, al-Qa’ida, and other extremists and early information on attacks that have occurred.”
The situation comes amid heightened tensions between the government and Silicon Valley firms over issues like privacy, encryption technology and access to iPhone data to assist in federal investigations.
“What Twitter has said is that ‘you know, we don’t like the sense that intelligence agencies are poring through tweets. We think it might make our users uncomfortable,'” NewYorker.com editor Nick Thompson told CBS News. “At least that’s what they seem to be portraying. So, somebody at Twitter must have been worried about the public perception.”
Thompson added that what adds some complexity to this dispute is that tweets, by their nature, are public. They don’t necessarily fall within the same kinds of privacy concerns people might have about personal emails, for instance.
Dataminr is “not really specifically going into something that you thought was private. It’s not reading emails that you didn’t think were out in the open. These are tweets that we make public,” Thompson said. “Though I assume if I were to put on my Twitter hat… you know, it’s kind of weird that the government agency has all of this power to sort through our data in ways that others don’t.”
“Why cut off access to one of your largest clients, particularly when you’re doing so badly? Twitter isn’t having a good time economically,” Thompson observed.
He added that other concerns involve the fact that large-scale events like terrorist attacks or natural disasters are when Dataminr becomes particularly useful — wouldn’t we want the CIA to make the best possible use of available Twitter information during a terrorist attack, for instance?