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To be public, or to protect your tweets from data-miners, that is the question

Mar 08, 20126 mins
Big DataData and Information SecurityEnterprise Applications

The devil is in the details of data-mining and Twitter sold access to all tweets to DataSift. Perhaps it is time to lockdown your Twitter account and "protect" your tweets, so your Twitter stream will "only be visible to users you've approved."

One of the scarier stories out there on the interwebs right now is on Jezebel where a woman asked if her rapist found her via spooky Spokeo. “I understand what it means to freely share my information. When I tweet, I know everyone can read it, which is why I keep my location hidden. But since I don’t put my contact info (besides my work e-mail and website URL) anywhere online, I don’t know how Spokeo tracked it down.”

The devil is in the details of data-mining, so when Twitter sold access to all tweets to DataSift, Sophos Naked Security asked “is it time to delete old tweets?” Maybe not, but it is time to seriously consider changing your Twitter account from “public” to “protect tweets” so your Twitter stream will “only be visible to users you’ve approved.”

As was suggested in this infographic, you are not safe online. Although the infographic focuses on Google and Facebook betraying users’ trust and private info — Twitter seems to be joining the crowds who happily sell your personal digital life in exchange for using a “free” service.

If you think there’s nothing to worry about in maintaining your public Twitter account, the International Association of Privacy Professionals suggested the Tweet sales are a “game-changer” and Paul Stephens, the director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, agreed, “Harvesting what someone said a year or more ago is game-changing.” Do you recall how many “hot” NOC keywords you’ve tweeted in the last couple years? Gus Hosein, deputy director of Privacy International, stated, “As a Twitter user you expect that what you say will be accessible to others but you don’t expect it will be data mined. You don’t expect that your tweets over a two year period will be dissected to see your attitudes towards a company.” EPIC also sounded the privacy alarm over Twitter selling “two year’s worth of old tweets.” The EFF’s Rebecca Jeschke stated, “It’s frustrating, and telling, that now marketers have greater access to my old tweets than I do. However, this is perfectly legal, if creepy. If you publish your tweets publicly, that allows all sorts of folks to do all sorts of things with them.”

All the tweets archived in The Library of Congress are available to “academic research communities.” JDJournal noted, the Library of Congress currently has “restrictions on government authorities include a six-month delay and a prohibition against using the data for commercial purposes.” Other than mass deleting tweets, if you are serious about protecting your privacy from data-miners yet maintaining a Twitter account: Lockdown your account to protect your tweets, or use a special hashtag to delete your tweets once they are 23 weeks old. Hashtag anything you don’t want the Library of Congress to preserve for all eternity with #noloc. “Tweets that are 24 weeks old (6 months) or older will be saved forever, and you will no longer be able to delete them. By using, you continue to use Twitter like normal, but when you tweet turns 23 weeks old, we’ll delete it automatically.”

But in this “on the fly” social media monitoring world, #noloc will not protect you from Twitter’s deal with DataSift Historics “to trawl through all those posted since January 2010.” Of the 250 million tweets per day, DataSift makes approximately $15,800 a month from companies who want tweets about their products and services analyzed. “It claims to have a waiting list of up to 1,000 clients wanting to riffle through the huge Twitter archive for data that could help them target advertising and develop marketing campaigns.” Only protected and deleted tweets will not be slurped up by DataSift.

The company’s chief marketing officer Tim Barker added, “It’s not only the two years of 140 character tweets we will be offering in the archive, but we will be [including] information on users’ location, or with information on the links that that they posted in tweets, for example.” Okay now, think back to woman who wondered if her rapist found her via social media. Oh and Information Age reported that the DataSift service “sits on a Hadoop cluster with over half a petabyte’s worth of storage.” Yet Barker told diTii he “did not expect there to be privacy concerns about the platform.” Perhaps because there was not such a ruckus for another company Gnip, the first authorized seller of tweets, but it “can go back only to 30 days of archives.”

Sure, you could use TwitWipe to delete “all your tweets in one go.” TweetEraser claims “to help you filter and delete your bulk Tweets.” There are several programs to help you Delete My Tweets or Delete Multiple Tweets other than manually hunting and deleting. And although the Twitter Developers say deleted tweets are forever gone, even after Ashton Kutcher deleted tweets directed at a hacker, Celebrity Tweets still had a record of those deleted tweets.

Still not convinced there is any cause for privacy concerns? Then consider the U.S. State Department “wants you to hunt fugitives via Twitter.” Colleges and employers are watching what you say in social media. Don’t forget DHS is happily scouring social media, including monitoring Twitter for hot NOC keywords. You should also recall the ACLU fighting on behalf our First Amendment rights in regard to Twitter. According to the government, you have no right to anonymous speech on Twitter and Twitter was ordered to comply with this hashtag subpoena [PDF]. But as Hacker News reported, “Twitter ignored the Suffolk D.A.’s request for secrecy, and forwarded the subpoena to @pOiSAnOn in accordance to Twitter’s Guidelines for Law Enforcement.”

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  • Privacy Invasion: Social media monitoring required to attend college or to be hired?
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  • Woz on smartphones: Wishes his iPhone could do all his Android can
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  • Do you give up a reasonable expectation of privacy by carrying a cell phone?

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.