Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Is The Government Reading Your Tweets?

The US Government is facing tough questions and mounting pressure over its surveillance programs as a result of information revealed by Edward Snowden. Leaders in the National Security Agency have endured grilling from Congress and increased scrutiny from journalists due to recent revelations that the phone and Internet activity of millions of Americans has been viewed by the government agency. But does the added scrutiny mean that the NSA pulling back on how much data it gathers on social media users? According to Twitter, the answer is a definitive “No.”

Big Jump In Information Requests

In Twitter’s transparency report it appears that the number of government requests in connection with criminal cases is rising. A total of 1,157 information requests by governments worldwide were made in the first six months of 2013. That is an increase from 1,009 requests from the previous six month period and 849 requests in the six months before that. In 2013, the United States lead the pack in amount of requests by far with 902. Japan came in second place with just 82.
Since this is the first transparency report to be released since the leaks of NSA documents, Twitter recognized its significance. "An important conversation has begun about the extent to which companies should be allowed to publish information regarding national security requests," Twitter said in a blog post on Wednesday. "We have joined forces with industry peers and civil liberty groups to insist that the United States government allow for increased transparency into these secret orders."

Information Removal Requests

Federal institutions worldwide aren’t just contacting Twitter in order to collect IP addresses and other personal information. Twitter has also received requests from governments to remove content from their site. In the first half of 2012, Twitter handled only six removal requests. In first half of 2013, however, that number shot up to 60. Most of these requests were designed to remove libelous tweets and hate speech. Brazil sent in the most content removal requests with 39. While the US government requested that two tweets be removed, Twitter didn’t comply with either one.
"Over the last six months, we have gone from withholding content in two countries to withholding content (ranging from hate speech to defamation) in seven countries," said Jeremy Kessel.
Twitter says that all users affected by government requests are notified unless prohibited by law.

The Future

It has long been known that the police and other government organizations monitor Twitter for dangerous or threatening tweets. More than a few people have added an entry to their arrest records because they tweeted something violent or threatened another person. But these revelations by Twitter show that the government is interested in more personal information, such as your IP Address (which can reveal the geographic location of someone making a tweet.) Will the US government cave into public pressure and leave Tweeters alone now that surveillance programs are in the hot seat? We may have to wait until Twitter’s next transparency report (due to be released early next year) until we get an answer.
Phillip Harding is a writer from Rainbow, California. He writes about social media, crime, and the law.

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