UK government irate at Twitter’s surveillance API crackdown

The UK government has criticized Twitter for restricting police and intelligence agency access to data which it says could be used to identify terrorist plots, according to the Telegraph newspaper.

The newspaper quotes a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May, who said: “We are protesting this decision. We are in talks with Twitter on getting access to this data.” The spokesman also called for social media companies to play a role in the government’s fight against terrorism.

TechCrunch understands the disputed data is the same data that Twitter sells to private sector clients and advertising companies.

The Telegraph reports the government had paid a third-party company for a service that tracked terms related to potential terror attacks — before this was blocked by Twitter cutting off access to its API.

In December, Twitter similarly blocked US law enforcement agencies from accessing real-time data via a deal with Dataminr, following pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union. The Telegraph suggests the UK Home Office had also been working with Dataminr before access was cut off. (To complicate matters further Twitter part owns Dataminr.)

A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment — but pointed to a blog post from November where it discusses its concern about its APIs being used to create products to “track or profile protesters and activists”, including by law enforcement agencies.

Twitter wrote then:

We prohibit developers using the Public APIs and Gnip data products from allowing law enforcement — or any other entity — to use Twitter data for surveillance purposes. Period. The fact that our Public APIs and Gnip data products provide information that people choose to share publicly does not change our policies in this area. And if developers violate our policies, we will take appropriate action, which can include suspension and termination of access to Twitter’s Public APIs and data products.

We have an internal process to review use cases for Gnip data products when new developers are onboarded and, where appropriate, we may reject all or part of a requested use case. Over the coming months, you’ll see us take on expanded enforcement and compliance efforts, including adding more resources for swiftly investigating and acting on complaints about the misuse of Twitter’s Public APIs and Gnip data products.

Prior to this, last October, Twitter suspended data access for Geofeedia, a location-based, social media surveillance system used by government offices, private security firms, marketers and others.

TechCrunch understands discussions are ongoing between the UK government and Twitter to try to resolve the issue. The data being requested would be anonymized, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Social media companies have come under increasing political pressure in the UK to do more to help combat counterterrorism efforts. Home Secretary Amber Rudd held talks with Twitter and other major tech platforms in March to push for them to build tools to tackle the spread of terrorist propaganda on their platforms.