Cybersecurity

Twitter bars intelligence agencies from key data service

Twitter has barred U.S. intelligence agencies from accessing a service that monitors and sorts the entire worldwide volume of tweets in real time.

The move, reported by The Wall Street Journal, is seen as a reflection of increased tensions between Silicon Valley and the government.

"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, told the Journal. "I think it's a bad sign of a lack of appropriate cooperation between a private-sector organization and the government."

According to a senior intelligence official, Twitter appeared to be worried about the "optics" of being seen as cooperating too closely with U.S. spy agencies.

The service is run by an outside company called Dataminr. Twitter owns about a 5 percent stake in the firm, the only company it authorizes to mine the entire stream of postings on the platform.

According to the Journal, the company recently told Dataminr that it no longer wanted the firm to offer its services to the U.S. intelligence community.

Dataminr sifts through hundreds of millions of daily tweets looking for patterns, cross-referencing postings against data like location and market information to identify actionable insight. It sends out alerts of unfolding events like terror attacks or political unrest.

For example, the service tipped off intelligence agencies about the December terrorist attacks in Paris shortly after they began.

Twitter says it has a longstanding policy of forbidding third-parties - including Dataminr - from selling data to government agencies for surveillance purposes. But, it said in a statement, the "data is largely public and the U.S. government may review public accounts on its own, like any user could."

Intelligence agencies have long relied on data from social media to track the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which relies heavily on the platform to network, recruit and coordinate.

A March study from the Brookings Institution estimated that from September through December 2014, ISIS supporters used at least 46,000 Twitter accounts, although not all of them were active at the same time.

Although Twitter has worked to boot terrorists off its network - largely playing a game of whack-a-mole as new accounts crop up to replace deactivated ones - many argue that terrorist chatter on social media is a valuable stream of intelligence.

"If every single ISIS supporter disappeared from Twitter tomorrow, it would represent a staggering loss of intelligence," the Brookings Institution report noted.

Without access to that information, some supporters of the government say, intelligence agencies will lose a valuable source of information on the group's movements.

"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 Journal. "Twitter's decision could have grave consequences."

But in the wake of the disclosures by ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden - which revealed the breadth of U.S. spying - technology companies are leery to be seen as allowing the government to snoop through their customers' private information.

The result, many say, has been an increasingly toxic relationship between Silicon Valley and law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Dataminr will continue to fulfill a separate, $225,000 contract to provide its alert service to the Department of Homeland Security, according to the Journal.

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