Twitter Inc. has stopped the flow of data from its platform to US intelligence. The data had been via a private data mining service.
The move is the latest by a Silicon Valley firm that shows the ongoing war between the U.S. government and technology firms over privacy and terrorism concerns.
Dataminr Inc., a private firm sifts through the social media site’s posts to compile data which then sold to its clients. Twitter, which owns 5% of Dataminr’s shares, has banned the firm from providing U.S. intelligence agencies with data mined from Twitter feeds.
The decision wasn’t publicly announced, but has been confirmed by senior U.S. intelligence officials. The service alerts officials of impending political unrest, terror attacks and other events.
The move is bound to create shockwaves in the US intelligence community. This is due to the fact that Dataminr is the only firm authorized by Twitter to access public tweets. The tweets are analyzed and the data sold to its clients, with Twitter’s supervision.
U.S. intelligence agencies were told by Dataminr officials that Twitter no longer wants it to provide them with its service. The decision seems to have been a result of Twitter’s fear that it could be thought of as being too open with U.S. intelligence. This would have damaged its users’ long-held belief that Twitter feeds are private.
Twitter Says Decision Informed by Policy
Twitter execs said that the firm has a policy in place that bars third parties like Dataminr from selling data to intelligence agencies for spying and surveillance.
Despite this long standing rule, Twitter execs refused to say how Dataminr could have provided the service to U.S. government for two years. It also failed to say why the deal had to be cancelled.
Twitter issued a statement, saying that its data is public and the U.S. government is free to review all public accounts using its own means and resources “like any other user could”.
The decision doesn’t impact Dataminr’s other clients such as media outlets, financial industry or other clients who aren’t in the intelligence.
Dataminr has developed its own proprietary software that pores through tons of daily tweets, newswires, traffic data and other sources to detect patterns. It then compares the data with geographic data and market information, alongside other issues. This helps it decide what information is relevant or potentially useful.
Helped Provide Real Time Alerts
The service has proved its ability to detect terrorist attacks. The most high profile one was an alert issued to the U.S. intelligence about the Paris terror attacks. The alert was issued as the terror attacks unfolded in November. As such, the type of information issued makes it very useful in detecting real time events.
The company also notified its clients in March about the Brussels attacks 10 minutes before conventional media outlets did. It also informed on Brazilian political upheavals, ISIS attacks on Libyan oil industry and other critical events across the world.
This expertise makes it invaluable to U.S. intelligence agencies. Hence, they are hoping Twitter will reconsider its decision. Terror groups such as the Islamic State routinely post on anything such as propaganda, threats or battlefield positions on Twitter.
Twitter usually closes down accounts belonging to such extremist organizations for contravening its anti-terror policies. However, Islamic State supporters open new accounts instantly. This makes it hard to enforce the policy.
The volume of Islamic State’s Twitter activity contains a vast trove of data that is critical for counter-terrorism experts. This helps them devise ways to manage threats. Hence, Twitter’s decision will have deeper ramifications.
The importance of Twitter feeds to the U.S. intelligence community was stated by David S. Cohen, deputy director of the CIA, in September. He stated the relevance of data sourced from social media sites by noting that terrorist organizations such as ISIS usually publicize their activities on such platforms. This provides valuable intelligence data.
The U.S. government and the Silicon Valley are embroiled a standoff that started after Edward Snowden’s revelations. Snowden, a former National Security contractor, revealed the government spied electronic communications.
Apple Recently Had Privacy Fight with U.S. Government
Apple Inc. was recently locked in a legal battle with the U.S. Justice Department over requests by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to hack an iPhone. The iPhone in question was used by a slain terrorist involved in the San Bernardino shootings in California last December.
The showdown ended in March after the FBI managed to access the phone using its own methods.
In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm that invests in companies that help the U.S. intelligence community, has been financing data-mining firms. This is driven by the desire to help boost the government’s ability to filter and analyze massive troves of data. Some of the companies it has invested in include Recorded Future Inc. and Palantir Technologies Inc.
Dataminr began providing U.S. intelligence agencies with its service after In-Q-Tel invested in the company. The New York-based Dataminr was founded seven years ago by three graduates of Yale University.