Twitter Cuts Off Firehose Access To DHS Fusion Centers

from the you-can-hear-Sen.-McCain's-teeth-gritting-from-here dept

Earlier this year, Twitter pulled the plug on some of Dataminr’s customers, specifically the intelligence agencies it was selling its firehose access to. Twitter made it clear Dataminr’s access to every public tweet wasn’t to be repurposed into a government surveillance tool.

That being said, everything swept up by Dataminr was public. There was no access to direct messages or tweets sent from private accounts. And Twitter seemingly is doing nothing to prevent Dataminr from selling this same access to the FBI, an agency that’s far more an intelligence agency than a law enforcement agency these days — one that thinks it should be allowed to do everything the CIA does, if not more.

Presumably, the FBI pinned its law enforcement badge to its chest when hooking up with Dataminr because Twitter has had nothing to say about the partnership. And it’s not as though Twitter is fine with just anyone selling analytic tools to law enforcement. It, along with Facebook, yanked Geofeedia’s access to APIs simply because it didn’t like how Geofeedia pitched its tweet-grabbing front end. In sales materials, the company strongly hinted that law enforcement agencies could use its software to stay “one step ahead” of citizens engaged in First Amendment-protected activity.

Twitter’s standards are malleable, to say the least. But it does seems to be serious about refusing to let its service become just another government surveillance tool. The ACLU is reporting that Twitter has just cut off Dataminr access to the dozens of DHS “fusion centers” scattered across the country.

As of this week, Twitter has made sure that federally funded fusion centers can no longer use a powerful social media monitoring tool to spy on users. After the ACLU of California discovered the domestic spy centers had access to these tools, provided by Dataminr (a company partly owned by Twitter), Dataminr was forced to comply with Twitter’s clear rule prohibiting use of data for surveillance.

Twitter sent a letter to the ACLU of California this week confirming that Dataminr has terminated access for all fusion center accounts. The letter also makes clear that Dataminr will no longer provide social media surveillance tools to any local, state, or federal government customer.

Once again, the DHS and its local partners are still free to eyeball as many public tweets as they like, but without the robust front-end that hauls in hundreds of millions of tweets every day and sorts them into easily-surveillable categories. This is probably just as well, considering the DHS’s “fusion centers” are underperforming boondoggles tasked mainly with fielding ridiculous complaints from Americans who actually believe “see something, say something™” helps the nation fight terrorism, rather than simply put more government boots on the Bill of Rights’ neck.

Twitter’s statement says it will continue to “work with” Dataminr to further limit its pool of government customers. Dataminr, on the other hand, says there’s really nothing to worry about. It may be directly attached to the Twitter firehose, but its customers aren’t.

Datatminr’s product does not provide any government customers with their own direct firehose access or features to export data; the ability to search raw historical Tweet archives or to target or profile users; conduct geospatial analysis; or any form of surveillance.

Well, sure. Not now. From the third-hand discussions of conversations between Twitter and Dataminr, it appears the company will only be able to offer a highly-filtered version of its firehose to government end users. If this results in less lucrative contracts, so be it. After all, Dataminr did itself no favors by marketing its software to law enforcement with the same sort of pitches that ended Geofeedia’s relationship with the social media company.

Through a public records request, the ACLU of California discovered that the Los Angeles area fusion center, JRIC, was using Dataminr and had access to the company’s powerful Geospatial Analysis Application that enables keyword searches and location-based tracking. Settings in the Geospatial App even allowed the government to focus on monitoring journalists and organizations. Using Dataminr, fusion centers like JRIC could search billions of real-time and historical public tweets and then potentially share information with the federal government.

In an email to the Los Angeles Police Department, Dataminr also highlighted how its products could be customized to track protests by drawing from the complete Twitter “firehose” of public tweets. In a separate brochure, Dataminr touted the Geospatial App’s use to surveil a student protest.

None of this shows much in the way of consistency or integrity on Twitter’s end. If Geofeedia’s marketing materials bothered Twitter enough to completely yank its access, the sales pitches by Dataminr should have been equally concerning. But Dataminr is still hooked up to Twitter’s hose and Geofeedia has been left to wander off somewhere into the software wilderness and die. Both marketed access to law enforcement using surveillance of First Amendment-protected activity, but only one is still allowed to do so.

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Companies: dataminr, twitter

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Comments on “Twitter Cuts Off Firehose Access To DHS Fusion Centers”

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JohnnyRotten (profile) says:

Smoke Screen

Publically, Dataminr and Twitter will talk about how the fed no longer has access.

Of course, this is a smoke screen.

There are only four outcomes here:

The Fed is/will just pull directly from Twitter through an agreement that makes Twitter serious $$$.

If Twitter balks at this then:

The Fed will continue to pull through Dataminr, but without telling the public or Twitter.

The Fed will use a broad National Security letter and the kangaroo FISA court to “force” Dataminr or Twitter to turn over the information. I use quotes in the Austin Power sense.

The Fed will contract through one of Dataminr’s customers for the same data, thus giving Dataminr cover for it’s claims as stated today.

Privacy and the constitution are long dead.

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