In 2013 Edward Snowden exposed the cosy relationship between the top US tech companies and the NSA. Ever since, those companies have been keen to claw back public confidence by not just distancing themselves from government spy agencies, but actively pushing back against attempts to spy on their customers.
The recent spat between Apple and the FBI over FBI demands that Apple decrypt an iPhone provides a good illustration of the simmering tensions that currently exist between tech firms and the US government.
Twitter has now thrown its glove in the fray. It is a business partner of Dataminr, a New York company that specializes in analyzing huge troves of Twitter data. As its website proudly proclaims,
“Dataminr instantly analyzes all publicly available Tweets for real-time information related to terrorist threats, social and political unrest, shootings, fires, transportation and other serious accidents, extreme weather and illness outbreaks.”
Until now this service has proved a valuable resource for government agencies such as the FBI and CIA, who could easily use it to search for tweets that include terms such as “terrorist”, “jihad”, or “ISIS”. As David Cohen, the CIA’s second-highest ranking official, noted last year,
“ISIL’s sophisticated use of Twitter and other social media platforms is a perfect example of the malign use of these technologies… ISIL’s tweets and other social media messages publicizing their activities often produce information that, especially in the aggregate, provides real intelligence value.”
It now seems that Twitter, which holds a 5 percent share in Dataminr, is keen to put a stop intelligence agencies using Dataminr for this purpose,
“Dataminr uses public Tweets to sell breaking news alerts to media organizations such as Dow Jones and government agencies such as the World Health Organization, for non-surveillance purposes. We have never authorized Dataminr or any third party to sell data to a government or intelligence agency for surveillance purposes. This is a longstanding Twitter policy, not a new development.”
Dataminr is valued at some $700 million, and is also partly owned by In-Q-Tel, a not-for profit venture capitalist firm that acts as an investment arm for the CIA and other government agencies. It has so far refused comment on recent developments.