Twitter releases news government transparency report

Twitter released its third, biannual transparency report, showing the number of user data requests received from the government.

Twitter photo
The Twitter logo. The company released its biannual transparency report on August 1, 2013.

Twitter's third, biannual transparency report shows that the number of user information requests the company has received from 26 different governments has increased by 15 percent in the past six months. 

The Wednesday report shows the US government made 902 user data requests from January through June 2013 – an increase from the 815 requests made from July to December 2012. 

Though the increase might seem modest, Chris Calabrese, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, says the larger number of user data requests is concerning nevertheless. 

"The concern is over the trend," says Mr. Calabrese. The data being collected from Twitter makes up a very small percentage of the total data requests the government receives, but when looking at the increase in Twitter’s data request numbers as part of a larger narrative of escalating government surveillance, the situation becomes more concerning, he says. 

Countering what Calabrese says, Matt Zimmerman, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, does not find the increase in the number of user data requests concerning: the company is growing, and it is logical that the number of data requests would grow as well, but there is still a problem with the granularity of the transparency report, he says.

Increasing scrutiny has come to Internet companies’ transparency reports since former-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents detailing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s data collection and storage program, Prism. In the wake of these document leaks, the US government has been under increasing pressure to increase the transparency of its surveillance programs. 

Though Twitter was not implicated in the Prism program, the company has also urged the government to allow for the release of the types of data requests it receives in its transparency report.

“One of the glaring holes in something that Twitter has pointed out [is that the company] is not allowed to say what kind of national security letters they received,” and this is the same problem that every other Internet company has come up against in its transparency reports as well, says Mr. Zimmerman.

Twitter, like other Internet companies, can only offer a bulk number of user data requests that it receives and how many it declines. The company complied with 67 percent of all US data requests, which specified 1,319 Twitter users, according to its transparency report.

The government usually uses information such as a user’s IP address and e-mail information to find out more information about an individual. 

The transparency report states that Twitter notifies affected users of requests for their account information unless the company is prohibited by law. However, requests made in the FISA court do not require that the government notify individuals who were under surveillance. In 2012, the US Department of Justice submitted 1,789 electronic search applications to the FISA court. Only one application was withdrawn, and no requests were denied, according to the most recent FISA report. In addition, the FBI sent 15,229 National Security Letter requests for information concerning 6,223 different US citizens, according to a report by the Electronic Privacy Center.  

Yahoo and Google – both of which were implicated in the Prism program – have taken legal action to pressure the government to increase transparency around data requests since the NSA leaks in early June.

Twitter has a history of defending its customers’ privacy in court, though not always successfully, after all, “no one wants a pen that’s going to rat them out,” said Twitter’s chief lawyer, Alexander Macgillivray, to the New York Times. Twitter has received top ratings from the Electronic Frontier Foundation as a company that "has users' backs." 

In 2012, Twitter challenged a subpoena in an attempt to protect one of its user’s accounts. In the end, Twitter was forced to turn over Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris’s IP address to the Manhattan district attorney. Though Twitter does not always win such cases, the fact that the Internet company is challenging government authority is a healthy check on government authority to access user data information, says Zimmerman.

Twitter’s transparency report also included the number of removal requests the company received, as well as the number of alleged copyright violations.  

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