Twitter has often been accused of toeing the government line and monitoring tweets of people. There have been reports of microblogging site evolving into a surveillance platform. Four years after the first set of allegations were made, the company and its Chief Executive Jack Dorsey have been charged again for tapping into the public tweets to alert the police and other governmental agencies about any possible civil unrest or protests with the help of an artificial intelligence startup called Dataminr. Also Read: New food service robot to serve in Japanese restaurants amid COVID-19 pandemic
Twitter has always maintained that it is not a ‘surveillance platform’ and that the medium does not let itself to be used for investigations. “Twitter prohibits the use of our developer services for surveillance purposes. Period,” a spokesman for the San Francisco-based company said in reply to an AFP inquiry.
However, Twitter has allowed Dataminr, to use its stream of public tweets to send ‘signals’ to police or other government agencies about preparations being made for protests or civil disobedience, such as those participating in the Black Lives Matter movement. Also Read: Google Maps introduces new color-coded COVID-19 layer showing coronavirus cases in your area
Twitter, an investor in Dataminr alongside In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm, gives the AI company complete access to a content stream known as the “firehose” – a rare privilege among tech firms and one that lets Dataminr scan every public tweet as soon as its author hits send. Twitter derived $466 million last year, or 13% of its revenue, from the division that licenses data to companies like New York-based Dataminr.
In recent months, Dataminr has provided government clients with alerts that include Twitter handles of those posting messages about protest plans or where activists are blocking streets, according to a Wall Street Journal report that cited seeing email copies of alerts.
Dataminr, as per its website, is real-time AI platform that detects the earliest signals of high-impact events and emerging risks from within publicly available data. Dataminr’s First Alert – a product for police, military and other government clients – was built with Twitter’s help to preclude surveillance by government customers, and doesn’t enable them to search for or track specific accounts, among other limitations. Government clients receive alerts tailored to their interests, though “protests” isn’t a topic they can choose, Dataminr says.
“First Alert provides a public good. And importantly, it does so with maximal protections for privacy and civil liberties,” Dataminr said in a statement. Also Read: Games like The Elder Scrolls, Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein and Fallout now belongs to Microsoft after $7.5-bn acquisition of ZeniMax
This map shows the most frequently used pairs of words in Dataminr alerts from around the world in 2017. These common phrases reflect both the reality of everyday life in these regions and some of the year’s major events. Credit: Dataminr
Twitter has said that it sees “societal benefit” in public Twitter data being used for news alerting, first responder support, and disaster relief. The company’s stance on this matter, however, prompts a discussion as to what precisely represents surveillance.
Threat alerts that can keep people out of danger or help support first responders can focus on specific locations, such as parks or schools, and what is happening, according to Twitter.
Twitter said it has audited Dataminr’s suite of products and found no violation of its ban on surveillance.
“We proactively enforce our policies to ensure customers are in compliance and will continue to do so,” the Twitter spokesman said.
“We consistently hold ourselves accountable to rigorous standards, including third-party audits of key products and services like Dataminr.”
However, critics of Dataminr and Twitter surveillance say that AI company’s broad monitoring of Twitter on behalf of government clients means Twitter is, in effect, enabling constant monitoring of its users.
“Any reasonable definition of surveillance should include trolling around Twitter using special access to listen to what people are talking about,” said Faiza Patel, director of the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy think tank and advocacy group that promotes privacy rights among other issues. “Having a third party do it doesn’t change the nature of what’s happening.”