X ‘Selling Real-Time Data’ For Law-Enforcement Purposes

Social media platform X, formerly Twitter, continues to sell real-time user data to law-enforcement agencies under new owner Elon Musk, according to a report by The Intercept.

The data is used for law-enforcement purposes, according to emails obtained by the publication, in spite of terms which prohibit third-parties from using the data in this way – although those terms include allow such porposes if  “explicitly approved by X in writing”.

The report comes after the US Supreme Court in January rejected a request by X to consider whether the firm could publicly disclose how often federal law enforcement seks information about users for national security investigations.

The long-running case, launched in 2014 in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the extent of US government surveillance of citizens, was framed as a stand against government surveillance.

Image credit: X/Twitter

‘Government abuse’

“History demonstrates that the surveillance of electronic communications is both a fertile ground for government abuse and a lightning-rod political topic of intense concern to the public,” X’s lawyers wrote in their petition to the Supreme Court.

Musk said in a post on X that it was “disappointing that the Supreme Court declined to hear this matter”.

The company has been taken to task in the past for what critics have called double standards as it profits from the sale of user information, to tools used by law-enforcement agencies to monitor activists and protesters, including a 2016 investigation into such uses by the  American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

X has said in the past that the First Alert programme offered to law enforcement agencies by Dataminr, in which the company formerly held a stake, does not constitute surveillance because the information it draws on has been shared publicly by users.

The tool has been shown to be usd by police to monitor online political speech and real-world protests, according to The Intercept.

‘Firehose’

First Alert uses privileged access to X’s “firehose” of all data published by users in real-time.

It was unclear whether X would continue to provide this data for government use via Dataminr under Musk’s ownership, but emails between Dataminr and the US Secret Service, which protects US political leaders and the country’s financial infrastructure, show that the arrangement was still in place as of last summer, The Intercept said.

Dataminr confirmed to the Secret Service in July 2023 that its contract with X gives it “real-time access to the full stream of all publicly available Tweets” and that it had “dozens” of customers who were “responsible for law enforcement whether at the local, state or federal level”.

An email from the Secret Service to Dataminr confirmed that the “whole point of this contract is to use the information for law enforcement purposes”.

Real-time access

In spite of its protests over government surveillance, “X turns around and sells Dataminr fire-hose access to users’ posts, which Dataminr then passes through to the government”, ACLU surveillance and cybersecurity counsel Jennifer Granick told the publication.

Platforms “must not provide special services, like real-time access to the full stream of public-facing posts, to surveillance vendors who share this information with police departments”, said Electronic Frontier Foundation privacy litigation director Adam Schwartz.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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