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Twitter data raise question: Who's following you? Maybe police

July 02, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • Twitter Chief Executive Dick Costolo speaks in Cannes, France. The widespread data generated by social media is becoming a tool for police surveillance.
Twitter Chief Executive Dick Costolo speaks in Cannes, France. The widespread… (Sebastian Nogier / European…)

Everything is evidence. You might want to remember that the next time you log on.

According to new data released by Twitter on Monday, American police are leading the charge to get users’ info from the popular San Francisco-based microblogging service. Overall, from Jan. 1 through June,  the company received 849 law enforcement requests for individual users’ information, granting 63% of those requests.

American law enforcement accounted for 80% of those information requests compared to other nations, just as Americans are thought to make up a dominant share of the service’s users. U.S. officials made 679 requests, getting what they wanted 75% of the time.

What’s more, the company reported, “We’ve received more government requests in the first half of 2012, as outlined in this initial dataset, than in the entirety of 2011.”

The widespread data generated by social media use represents one of the next frontiers of privacy’s collision with police surveillance. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security  monitors public posts on social media for potential threats; on Monday, the Manhattan district attorney’s office won a court ruling forcing Twitter to turn over three months’ worth of tweets for an Occupy Wall Street protester charged with disorderly conduct.

The numbers released by Twitter on Monday show requests for “user information.” According to the company’s privacy policy, that can include your location, IP addresses, search terms, pages visited and also data from when you visit third-party websites with Twitter buttons on them — which would seem to include the one you’re reading right now.

Some of this data is deleted after 18 months, according to the company’s privacy disclosure, if not sooner. The company accepts requests from law enforcement to preserve information for longer periods of time.

Twitter is one of the more transparent social-media sites out there, with a standing policy to notify users of requests for their information, unless barred by a statute or a court order; in the case of the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York, prosecutors had told the company not to tell the protester they were requesting his information. Twitter ignored this directive and told the protester anyway; he’s been fighting the subpoena ever since.

Twitter’s openness policies contrast a bit with Facebook’s, which released its law-enforcement guidelines only after Anonymous Antisec hackers pried them out of the company’s fingers illegally. Facebook later posted its policy online as Twitter has done, but its policies on notifying users are noticeably less firm.

In May, according to the Associated Press, Facebook cooperated with Pakistani authorities trying to block users participating in an inflammatory competition to post pictures of the prophet Muhammad, which is forbidden under Islamic law; Twitter, however, refused to cooperate and saw its services briefly blocked in Pakistan as a result. 

According to the data released Monday, Twitter received six requests from foreign governments and courts in France, Greece, Pakistan, Turkey and the United Kingdom over the past six months and complied with none of them.

The company also received 3,378 copyright takedown requests in that time span and complied with 38% of them, removing 5,275 tweets.

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nation@latimes.com

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