Twitter Bars U.S. Intelligence Agencies From Using Data-Mining Service

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The bird has spoken.Photo: David Paul Morris/2013 Bloomberg

The latest stone in the battle between U.S. intelligence agencies and Silicon Valley has been cast. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, Twitter will no longer allow agencies to use a data-mining service called (fittingly) Dataminr, which sifts through tweets to send alerts about breaking situations around the world.

Twitter doesn’t control Dataminr directly — it owns about a 5 percent stake in the company — but according to WSJ, Dataminr is the only company Twitter allows to access its real-time stream of public tweets and sell it to third-party clients.

Until recently, that list of clients included U.S. intelligence agencies. But the senior official told WSJ the tech company was concerned about the “optics” of co-operating too closely with agencies given recent fears about government-surveillance tactics. Although Twitter maintained in a statement that the U.S. government can still “review public accounts on its own, like any user could,” Dataminr’s utility goes beyond a simple TweetDeck scan:

Dataminr’s software detects patterns in hundreds of millions of daily tweets, traffic data, news wires and other sources. It matches the data with market information and geographic data, among other things, to determine what information is credible or potentially actionable.

For instance, Dataminr gave the U.S. intelligence community an alert about the Paris terror attacks shortly after they began to unfold last November. That type of information makes it “an extremely valuable tool” to detect events in real time, the intelligence official said.

Naturally, intelligence agencies aren’t happy with Twitter’s decision, not least because they enjoyed updates from Dataminr for two years before the tech company cut them off.

John Inglis, a former deputy director of the NSA, called Twitter’s decision “hypocritical.” “I think it’s a bad sign of a lack of appropriate cooperation between a private-sector organization and the government,” he said. Twitter, welcome to the club.