A Twitter business partner, whose service sifts through Twitter’s so-called fire hose of tweets as well as data from other sources to ascertain patterns in breaking news events, has been told to no longer provide its services to the U.S. intelligence community.
The Wall Street Journal on Sunday reported that the arrangement between Dataminr—Twitter owns five percent of Dataminr—and the intelligence community is over. Twitter said in an email to Threatpost that it is against its policy to sell data to the IC for surveillance, but the Journal reported that the business arrangement ended after the conclusion of a test program arranged by In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA.
“Dataminr uses public Tweets to sell breaking news alerts to media organizations such as Dow Jones and government agencies such as the World Health Organization, for non-surveillance purposes,” a Twitter spokesperson told Threatpost. “We have never authorized Dataminr or any third party to sell data to a government or intelligence agency for surveillance purposes. This is a longstanding Twitter policy, not a new development.”
Dataminr did not respond to a request for comment.
The move is being positioned as the latest salvo between technology companies and the government over privacy, terrorism, national security and how much access to customer data should be afforded to investigators.
Dataminr is the only company allowed to sell data culled from the Twitter fire hose. It mines Tweets and correlates that data with location data and other sources, and fires off alerts to subscribers of breaking news. Reportedly, Dataminr subscribers knew about the recent terror attacks in Brussels and Paris before mainstream media had reported the news. The Journal said its inside the intelligence community said the government isn’t pleased with the decision and hopes to convince Twitter to reconsider.
High-ranking government and law enforcement officials have on many occasions warned about the Islamic State, in particular, using social media as a recruiting tool. Twitter accounts promoting ISIS propaganda pop up—and are shut down—daily.
A recent report from security firm Flashpoint illustrated how terror organizations such as ISIS use the Internet. While most of these groups may not be ready for APT-style attacks against government entities online, they are adept at manipulating social media to lure sympathizers before moving to encrypted channels on the dark web for strategy and communication.
The Journal article quoted David S. Cohen, CIA deputy director, saying that the aggregate of social media messaging from ISIS and other groups provides the IC with “real intelligence value.”
As the recent Apple-FBI standoff over the locked iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters demonstrated, technology companies aren’t going to be so willing in the future to be in the position of having to hand over data. Apple, for example, has already relinquished its access to encryption keys to its device owners. The FBI tried to compel Apple for help in bypassing security features on the iPhone that would wipe the phone to factory settings before it engaged an unnamed third-party to break into the phone. The FBI has not disclosed who helped it, nor has it described how it was done and whether it would report any vulnerabilities to Apple for patching.