Twitter bans U.S. intelligence agencies from using data analytics service

Tuesday, May 17, 2016 by

( Social media site Twitter has cut off U.S. intelligence agency access to a service that combs through all of its postings, the latest example of rising tension between the federal government and Silicon Valley over national security, terrorism and privacy concerns.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the move – which had yet to be announced publicly earlier this week – was nevertheless confirmed by a senior U.S. intelligence official and others who are up to speed on the matter.

The service sends alerts regarding terrorist attacks as they unfold, political unrest and other potentially important events. The service is not provided directly by Twitter but by Dataminr, Inc., instead, a private firm that mines Twitter feeds for clients. Twitter owns a 5 percent stake in Dataminr, which is the only company that it authorizes to access all of its real-time stream of tweets to sell to clients.

Company executives recently told U.S. intelligence agencies that Twitter did not want Dataminr to continue providing them service, the WSJ reported, citing officials familiar with the development. The senior intel official said Twitter appeared concerned about the “optics” of appearing to be in bed with U.S. spy agencies.

The paper reported further:

Twitter said it has a long-standing policy barring third parties, including Dataminr, from selling its data to a government agency for surveillance purposes. The company wouldn’t comment on how Dataminr—a close business partner—was able to provide its service to the government for two years, or why that arrangement came to an end.

In a statement, Twitter said its “data is largely public and the U.S. government may review public accounts on its own, like any user could.”

The decision does not affect the company’s service and ties to the financial industry, news media or other clients not part of the intelligence community.

The software used by Dataminr is designed to detect patterns in hundreds of millions of traffic data, daily tweets, news wire services and other sources. The data is matched with market information and geographic data, as well as other identifiers, to determine what information is either actionable or potentially important.

Some have been critical of Twitter’s decision, including former U.S. intelligence officials.

“If Twitter continues to sell this [data] to the private sector, but denies the government, that’s hypocritical,” John C. Inglis, a former deputy director of the National Security Agency who left in 2014, told the WSJ. “I think it’s a bad sign of a lack of appropriate cooperation between a private-sector organization and the government.”

Other experts say that U.S. intelligence agencies’ ability to monitor groups like ISIS on social media is critical.

“The volume of the group’s activity on Twitter yields a vast amount of data that is a crucial tool for counterterrorism practitioners working to manage threats,” Michael S. Smith II, chief operating officer of the security consulting firm Kronos Advisory, told the paper. “Twitter’s decision could have grave consequences.”

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