Twitter blocks access to analytics around its data for US intelligence agencies

Twitter says Dataminr is not authorized to sell the data for surveillance purposes

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Credit: Martyn Williams

Twitter has blocked Dataminr from offering analytics around real-time tweets from the social networking site to U.S. intelligence agencies, according to a newspaper report.

The social networking company, which provides Dataminr with real-time access to public tweets, seems to be trying to distance itself from appearing to aid government surveillance, a controversial issue after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the government was collecting information on users through Internet and telecommunications companies.

Executives of Dataminr told intelligence agencies recently that Twitter, which holds around 5 percent of the equity in the startup and provides the data feed, did not want the company to continue providing the service to the agencies, reported The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, quoting a person familiar with the matter.

Twitter’s move appears to be in line with its policy with regard to the use of its data like tweets by external companies.

“Dataminr uses public Tweets to sell breaking news alerts to companies such as Wall Street Journal parent Dow Jones and government agencies such as the World Health Organization, for non-surveillance purposes,” Twitter said in a statement Sunday. “We have never authorized Dataminr or any third party to sell data to a government or intelligence agency for surveillance purposes.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have gained access to Dataminr’s service after In-Q-Tel, a venture capital organization backed by U.S. intelligence agencies, put money in the firm, WSJ said quoting a person familiar with the matter. Twitter is said to have conveyed to Dataminr that it didn’t want to continue the relationship with intelligence agencies at the end of a pilot by the data analysis firm arranged by In-Q-Tel. Dataminr does not figure in the list of In-Q-Tel portfolio companies on its website. 

Intelligence agencies are increasingly monitoring social media as some services like Twitter are widely used by terrorist organizations like the Islamic State group. A former deputy director of the NSA, John C. Inglis, told the WSJ that Twitter was engaging in double standards, by declining to offer intelligence agencies the data that is available to the private sector.

Dataminr, which mines real-time data from Twitter and other public sources into relevant information or "actionable signals" for a variety of customers including newspapers, hedge funds, investment banks, and other corporations, has been reported in the past as working with law enforcement agencies to help them monitor tweets and other data sources for potential criminal and terrorist threats.

Dataminr in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment over the weekend.

Twitter is quite rightly declining to serve as an extension of U.S. spy agencies, wrote Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union in a tweet.