Twitter monitoring tool shies away from government surveillance use

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Dataminr is backing away from letting regional intelligence centers, known as fusion centers, directly access its platform amid accusations that law enforcement was using the social media monitoring tool for surveillance.

Twitter says Dataminr, the company it partially owns, has informed anyone with a fusion center email address that it is terminating that access, according to a letter sent to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Fusion centers are hubs supported by the Department of Homeland Security and intelligence community to share threat intelligence among state and local partners coordinated in states and major urban areas.

Law enforcement and other first responders, according to the letter, will still be able to access “Dataminr news alerts (and only news alerts),” the letter notes, “subject to Dataminr and Twitter policies.”

Twitter, notably, has a clear policy against using Twitter for surveillance.

But statements about what Dataminr’s platform actually provides to government are still unclear. In Dataminr’s corresponding statement attached in Twitter’s letter to ACLU, the company notes that its product “does not provide any government customers with their own direct firehose access or features to export data; the ability to search raw historical Tweet archives or to target or profile users; conduct geospatial analysis; or any form of surveillance.”

It’s unclear if Dataminr’s “any form of surveillance” stance would preclude some past government contracts from being able to continue, such as one recent contract with the FBI, one of several government fusion center partners. Language in that contract makes it clear that in the past government agencies procured services with the company specifically to provide access to Twitter’s “firehose.”

The FBI’s Counterterrorism Division in November issued a sole-source justification for contracting access to Dataminr’s Indicators and Warnings service, which the FBI said at the time would “provide the FBI with a tool that offers near real time access to the Twitter ‘firehose’ so that the FBI may obtain the most current information available in executing its law enforcement and intelligence missions.”

According to the request for quotes, “FBI employees shall use the tool to develop/establish customized filters that allow them to identify real-time tweets relevant to the FBI’s investigative programs.”

[Read more: FBI seeks software to mine Twitter ‘firehose’]

The Transportation Safety Administration and Defense Department also use Dataminr, and told the FBI it “was the only service that could satisfy their Indicator & Warning requirements because of the unique relationship between Twitter and Dataminr as well as Dataminr’s ability to provide near real-time access to the full Twitter firehose,” the bureau said at the time.

The ACLU notes in a blog post that “Twitter’s action is an important step to protect users,” but it notes that social media is only one part of the surveillance enterprise.

“Companies and communities will need to take further steps in the months and years ahead to build in much stronger transparency, accountability, and oversight for government surveillance and make sure that rights are properly protected,” wrote Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director with ACLU of California.

The FBI could not be reached by publication time.

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ACLU, data analytics, Dataminr, Defense & Intelligence, Government IT News, surveillance, Tech, Twitter
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