Twitter has blocked federally funded “domestic spy centers” from using a powerful social media monitoring tool after public records revealed that the government had special access to users’ information for controversial surveillance efforts.
The American Civil Liberties Union of California discovered that so-called fusion centers, which collect intelligence, had access to monitoring technology from Dataminr, an analytics company partially owned by Twitter. The ACLU’s records prompted the companies to announce that Dataminr had terminated access for all fusion centers and would no longer provide social media surveillance tools to any local, state or federal government entities.
The government centers are partnerships between agencies that work to collect vast amounts of information purportedly to analyze “threats”. The spy centers, according to the ACLU, target protesters, journalists and others protected by free speech rights while also racially profiling people deemed “suspicious” by law enforcement.
“These are massive hubs for information collection and monitoring and surveillance of individuals,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of California. “The information they collect is often about innocent people.”
The revelations about the potential collaboration between the government centers and private technology companies are particularly alarming given heightened concerns about mass surveillance under President-elect Donald Trump.
Records that the ACLU obtained uncovered that a fusion center in southern California had access to Dataminr’s “geospatial analysis application”, which allowed the government to do location-based tracking as well as searches tied to keywords. That means the center could use Dataminr to search billions of tweets and monitor specific demographics or organizations.
In one email, Dataminr told Los Angeles police that its product could be customized to track protests, adding: “Twitter owns part of Dataminr (5%) so our access to their data is unmatched – no other company ingests the full firehouse of 500 million tweets in real-time … Twitter has been very clear with my CEO: ‘Dataminr is the only company with full, unrestricted access.’”
A Dataminr brochure touted the use of the company’s geospatial analysis application to monitor a student demonstration in South Africa by tracking hashtags and keywords.
Although Twitter has since cut off the spy centers’ access, some have argued that social media companies should have had stronger protections in place so that this kind of partnership and data sharing doesn’t happen in the first place.
By giving government agencies access to these tools, Dataminr was also clearly violating Twitter’s policy prohibiting the use of its data for surveillance, according to the ACLU.
“It’s really even more important now than ever that the companies have strong policies in place and that they have the right auditing and enforcement to make sure those rules are followed,” Ozer said.
In October, the ACLU obtained government records revealing that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram had provided users’ data to Geofeedia, a software company that aids police surveillance programs and has targeted protesters of color. The revelations prompted all three companies to remove access to certain data streams.
In the spring, Twitter also blocked US national security agencies, including the FBI and CIA, from buying bulk data on its users from Dataminr.
The announcement on Thursday applies to all 77 fusion centers in the US. Ozer said she hoped other companies would follow suit, noting that Dataminr’s technology “is probably not the only type of tool that fusion centers may have access to. It’s really important for other companies to be taking action to protect their users.”
Spokespeople for Twitter and Dataminr pointed to their letter to the ACLU this week, which noted that Dataminr only received public Twitter data. The letter also said Dataminr had “refined” its product for public sectors, focusing on a “breaking news alert” that helps first responders learn about events as quickly as possible.
“Dataminr is committed to privacy and civil liberties protections,” the company said in a statement. “We have worked closely with Twitter to modify our product and incorporate feedback that ensures the strongest safeguards are in place for people who use Twitter.”
This article was written by Sam Levin in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Thursday 15th December 2016 19.41 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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