Twitter has barred Dataminr, a service that analyzes tweets from across the globe to inform users about news events, from providing its information to US intelligence agencies, according to The Wall Street Journal. The social network has not confirmed that it cut the agencies off from the service, which claims to have informed clients about the Brussels terror attack in March 10 minutes ahead of news media, but the WSJ cites a senior US intelligence official and other people familiar with the matter.
The agencies had reportedly used Dataminr's service for two years before Twitter decreed that it must stop, with sources saying Twitter was concerned about appearing too close to the American intelligence community. Twitter said in a statement that its "data is largely public" specifying that the "US government may review public accounts on its own, like any user could" but did not comment on how Dataminr had come to be selling information to intelligence agencies in the first place. The WSJ notes that Twitter has a policy banning third-party companies such as Dataminr from selling information to government bodies for the purposes of surveillance.
Dataminr provided clients with an alert of the Brussels terror attacks 10 minutes before news media
Dataminr — in which Twitter owns a 5 percent stake — is the only company Twitter allows to see a real-time feed of every tweet on its network and sell that information on to clients. Intelligence agencies reportedly got access to Dataminr's product when the company received investment funding from In-Q-Tel — a venture capital firm that invests in companies whose products and services benefit the CIA and other intelligence agencies — but Twitter reportedly told Dataminr it wanted that link severed when the pilot program ended recently. In a statement provided to The Verge, Twitter said that it has "never authorized Dataminr or any third party to sell data to a government or intelligence agency for surveillance purposes." The company said this was "a longstanding Twitter policy, not a new development."
Twitter was worried about the "optics" of being linked to intelligence agencies
In the time it worked with US intelligence agencies, Dataminr gave an alert about the Paris terror attacks moments after they began, making it "an extremely valuable tool" according to the WSJ's source. Twitter's decision to pull back appears to mirror the increasing disconnect between government agencies and tech companies, as illustrated by Apple's recent court battle with the FBI over the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone, but ex-deputy director of the NSA John C. Inglis criticized the move. "If Twitter continues to sell this [data] to the private sector, but denies the government, that's hypocritical," he told the WSJ.
Despite Twitter's decree that Dataminr cuts ties with intelligence agencies, the third-party company still has deals in place with private companies in the financial, media, and other industries to provide condensed information as its algorithms parse the data from Twitter's millions of tweets. Most notably, the WSJ says Dataminr still has a $255,000 contract with the Department of Homeland Security for its breaking-news service.
Update May 9th, 1:45AM ET: Added statement from Twitter provided to The Verge.