Twitter has moved to block U.S. intelligence agencies from access to a widely used data-mining service it partly owns.
The social media company told Dataminr, the business partner that sifts through and provides access to the full output of Twitter’s social media postings known as tweets, that it didn’t want the service provided to government investigators, a person with direct knowledge of the issue said Monday.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because neither company has discussed the issue publicly.
Twitter (TWTR) took the action because it did not like the “optics” of appearing too close to U.S. spy agencies, said The Wall Street Journal reported, citing an unidentified intelligence official.
The move could further escalate the public privacy vs. government security tensions between high tech firms and the federal government.
Investigators are seeking access to social media and other electronic data in an effort to detect and avert suspected terrorist plots and other alleged crimes.
New York-based Dataminr did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Twitter said Dataminr uses public tweets to sell breaking news alerts to media organizations and government agencies such as the World Health Organization “for non-surveillance purposes.”
“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,” the company said.
“You’ll have to ask Dataminr about what they shared with their customer, and when,” added Twitter in an emailed statement.
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment directly on the agency’s access to the Dataminr service but said the value of “open source’’ information “has never been greater.’’
“The open source environment includes many sources of information including social media that are increasingly valuable in today’s world,’’ said Boyd. “Open source data has proven critical in providing indications of pending plots by ISIL, al-Qaeda and other extremists and early information on attacks that have occurred.”
Leo Taddeo, a former FBI special agent who led the cyber division of the agency’s New York office, said it would be difficult for Twitter to police who is accessing its data and the uses made of it. “Intelligence agencies are quite skillful at creating ‘cut-outs’ to mask their activity” and acquire data “through friendly marketing companies who act as proxies,” said Taddeo.
Separately, Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, tweeted: “Twitter quite rightly declining to serve as extension of US spy agencies.”
Twitter quite rightly declining to serve as extension of US spy agencies. https://t.co/iKpVTC11D3
— Jameel Jaffer (@JameelJaffer) May 9, 2016
Twitter holds an estimated 5% stake in Dataminr, and has given the partner access to the firehose-like data torrent generated by Twitter’s hundreds of millions of tweeters. Dataminr sifts through the tweets, uses algorithms that identify the postings that flag new or unusual events, and then routes those tweets to subscribers.
Media organizations including TOT use Dataminr as a news-gathering tool that provides alerts to breaking news ranging from suspected terrorist incidents to financial market moves and the latest developments in the arts and social media worlds even as they first surface.
Dataminr’s relationships with media companies, the financial industry and other clients has not changed.
The roster of Dataminr investors includes venture capital firm Venrock and Institutional Venture Partners, a late-stage venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley.
Near instantaneous access to breaking news of terrorism such as the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino has drawn interest from federal investigators, who seek clues to the suspects behind the incidents.
The episode comes in the wake of two highly-publicized cases in which the FBI sought the help of tech giant Apple (AAPL) in gaining access to data in two of the tech giant’s iPhones.
One of the smart phones was used by the shooter in the San Bernardino terror attack. The other was used by a confessed drug conspiracy defendant in Queens, N.Y.
In federal court standoffs, Apple argued that current federal law doesn’t authorize government investigators to compel the company’s assistance in such cases.
The FBI ultimately gained access to data in the two phones without Apple’s help.