Over the weekend, some news broke about how Twitter was blocking Dataminr, a (you guessed it) social media data mining firm, from providing its analytics of real-time tweets to US intelligence agencies
. Dataminr -- which, everyone makes clear to state, has investments from both Twitter and the CIA's venture arm, In-Q-Tel -- has access to Twitter's famed "firehose" API of basically every public
tweet. The company already has relationships with financial firms, big companies and other parts of the US government, including the Department of Homeland Security, which has been known to snoop around
on Twitter for quite some time.
Apparently, the details suggest, some (unnamed) intelligence agencies within the US government had signed up for a free pilot program
, and it was as this program was ending that Twitter reminded Dataminr that part of the terms of their agreement in providing access to the firehose was that it not then be used for government surveillance. Twitter insists that this isn't a change, it's just it enforcing existing policies.
Many folks are cheering Twitter on in this move, and given the company's past actions, the stance is perhaps not that surprising. The company was one of the very first to challenge
government attempts to get access to Twitter account info (well before the whole Snowden stuff happened). Also, some of the Snowden documents revealed that Twitter was alone among internet companies in refusing
to sign up for the NSA's PRISM program, which made it easier for internet firms to supply the NSA with info in response to FISA Court orders. And, while most other big internet firms "settled" with the government over revealing government requests for information, Twitter has continued to fight on
, pushing for the right to be much more specific about how often the government asks for what kinds of information. In other words, Twitter has a long and proud history of standing up to attempts to use its platform for surveillance purposes -- and it deserves kudos
for its principled stance on these issues.
That said... I'm not really sure that blocking this particular usage really makes any sense. This is public
information, rather than private information. And, yes, not everyone has access to "the firehose," so Twitter can put whatever restrictions it wants on usage of that firehose, but seeing as it's public information, it's likely that there are workarounds that others have (though, perhaps not quite as timely). But separately, reviewing public information actually doesn't seem like a bad idea for the intelligence community. Yes, we can all agree (and we've been among the most vocal in arguing this) that the intelligence agencies have a long and horrifying history of questionable datamining of other databases that they should not
have access to. But publicly posted tweet information seems like a weird thing for anyone to be concerned about. There's no reasonable expectation of privacy in that information, and not because of some dumb "third party doctrine" concept, but because the individuals who tweet do, in fact, make a proactive decision to post that information publicly.
So, perhaps I'm missing something here (and I expect that some of you will explain what I'm missing in the comments), but I don't see why it's such a problem for intelligence agencies to do datamining on public tweets. We can argue that the intelligence community has abused its datamining capabilities in the past, and that's true, but that's generally over private
info where the concern is raised. I'm not sure that it's helpful to argue that the intelligence community shouldn't even be allowed to scan publicly available information as well. It feels like it's just "anti-intelligence" rather than "anti-abusive intelligence."