Tweet Tracker Spurns US Intelligence Agencies

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Twitter has blocked U.S. intelligence agencies from accessing information from Dataminr, a firm that tracks tweets in real time to provide actionable information for financial, media, security and other types of institutional clients, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

The block suggests Twitter is unwilling to cooperate with government agencies on intelligence gathering, the paper said, citing an intelligence source.

Twitter owns a 5 percent stake in Dataminr, and the companies jointly developed the machine learning engines that Dataminr uses to analyze hundreds of millions of tweets. Dataminr monetizes a fraction of that data flow through the sale of information to various clients -- a hot trending story, for example, or a spike in information about a particular subject.

Twitter did not respond directly to the question of whether it blocked access to intelligence agencies, but acknowledged that it does not provide any direct sales cooperation with intelligence agencies.

"Dataminr uses public tweets to sell breaking news alerts to media organizations such as Dow Jones and government agencies such as the World Health Association for nonsurveillance purposes," Twitter said in a statement provided by spokesperson Nu Wexler. "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 policy, not a new development."

The firm raised US$130 million in 2015, and two of its key investors are Venrock and Institutional Venture Partners.

Silicon Valley firms need to have the confidence of their customers in order to be successful, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer told the E-Commerce Times.

"American technology companies can continue to thrive only if people around the world trust them. It's completely understandable that a social media company like Twitter doesn't want to be seen as an arm of American intelligence agencies," he maintained. "That said, it's doubtful that this move by Twitter will have any significant effect on the U.S. government's ability to access or analyze information."

Joel Meyer, senior vice president for the public sector at Dataminr, is listed as a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council Countering Violent Extremism Subcommittee.

The report comes at a time when Silicon Valley companies are at loggerheads with the Obama administration's legal and national security teams over the level of cooperation being provided to combat terrorism.

The administration has reached out to Silicon Valley to crack down on the use of social media by ISIS. However, Apple's resistance to providing the FBI with access to an encrypted iPhone that figured in the San Bernardino shooting led to a bitter legal fight that caused a great deal of angst and mistrust among various companies, as well as privacy and open technology advocates.

A number of high-profile companies, ranging from Twitter to Google and Facebook, have given public support to Apple in its pledge to fight the FBI and Department of Justice over attempts to force cooperation when law enforcement needs access to encrypted data.

Several of those companies have increased the encryption levels of their key products to calm customer concerns that their data may become the target of government surveillance or legal demands.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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