Twitter Warns Developers About Misusing Data

November 22, 2016, 9:07 PM UTC
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Twitter will expand and accelerate efforts to punish companies that employ its data for surveillance or other activities that violate its terms of service, the social network announced on Tuesday.

The announcement, which came in a blog post, comes at a time when Twitter has been facing major scrutiny over how third party data companies use its so-called “firehose,” the massive stream of real time data generated by its users.

In October, for instance, the ACLU and Bloomberg reported about how companies like Geofeedia and Snaptrends have marketed social media monitoring tools to police departments and to authoritarian regimes. Those tools can draw on location signals and other data, pulled from Twitter and other social networks like Facebook, to identify protestors and dissidents.

Twitter responded to the recent controversy by cutting off firehose access to some of those companies, effectively killing a big part of their business model. (This week, Geofeedia reportedly laid off half its staff due to loss of access to Twitter and Facebook data).

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And in its Tuesday blog post, the company suggested it will do more to investigate and ensure compliance with its anti-surveillance policies. The post refers to use of APIs and Gnip, which are tools that companies can use to extract data from Twitter:

Using Twitter’s Public APIs or data products to track or profile protesters and activists is absolutely unacceptable and prohibited. […]

We have an internal process to review use cases for Gnip data products when new developers are onboarded and, where appropriate, we may reject all or part of a requested use case. Over the coming months, you’ll see us take on expanded enforcement and compliance efforts, including adding more resources for swiftly investigating and acting on complaints about the misuse of Twitter’s Public APIs and Gnip data products.

The blog post also stated that the recent stories about surveillance had caused the company “great concern,” and described social justice as a long-standing and core part of Twitter’s mission.

The post is likely to reassure Twitter users and civil liberties groups who are concerned about the use of social media as a surveillance tool. But the post also did not address recent news that the FBI has retained Dataminr, an analytics firm in which Twitter has a 5% stake, to monitor tweets and other social media data.

In response to a query from Fortune about the FBI-Datminr contract, a Twitter spokesperson offered the following explanation:

“A narrowly tailored news alert product is available to some first responders, like the FBI. Our position on surveillance use cases is clear and those use cases are strictly prohibited.”

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