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Twitter Caught Selling Data to Government Spies While Complaining About Surveillance

Double Dealing

The social network formerly known as Twitter and now called X has for the better part of the past decade been involved in a lawsuit suing the US government for greater transparency on its surveillance practices on the platform.

The lawsuit continued under Elon Musk after he took over in 2022. When the Supreme Court eventually struck down the suit in January, Musk wrote that it was "disappointing."

But now, newly obtained emails have left both X and Musk, who has long claimed to be a champion of free speech, with egg on their faces. The Intercept reports that despite railing against state spying, the social media company has been quietly profiting off it this entire time — selling a "firehose" of user data for the explicit purpose of being used by law enforcement.

Buddy-Buddy

According to the report, the data is sold to the surveillance firm Dataminr, which uses AI technology to constantly monitor public activity on social media and other parts of the web.

In doing so, its clients, often law enforcement, can receive customized real-time alerts on what's brewing online, which helps them respond to natural disasters or — much more ominously — spy on protests, notes The Intercept.

In emails between Dataminr and the US Secret Service it obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request, the story revealed that the surveillance firm pays for special access to a "firehose" of data from Twitter. Sent in July 2023, they also confirm that practice continued under Musk.

"Dataminr has a unique contractual relationship with Twitter, whereby we have real-time access to the full stream of all publicly available Tweets," a company representative said in an email to the government agency, per the report.

In another email, the Secret Service confirmed the nature of the relationship: "the whole point of this contract is to use the information for law enforcement purposes," it read.

Two Faced

Besides contradicting the values of the lawsuit, the practice also goes against Twitter's own policies, notes The Intercept, which prohibit "conducting or providing surveillance or gathering intelligence."

But there's a thin technicality: the data isn't going directly to the government, but is rather being leased to an intermediary data firm, which in turn leases the data via real-time alerts to government agencies.

"While I appreciate that there may be some symbolic difference between giving the government granular data directly and making them sift through what they buy from data brokers, the end result is still that user data ends up in the hands of law enforcement, and this time without any legal process," David Greene, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Intercept.

To be clear, this is a practice that began long before Musk took over, and Twitter certainly isn't the only platform happy to pawn off your privacy to the feds. But on the other hand, this is the exact kind of two-facedness that Musk has long displayed.

More on surveillance: Alarming New Satellite Can Spy on Individual People