Modern field guide to security and privacy

With terror in spotlight, government requests for Twitter data surge

Washington and other governments are working harder to blunt the spread of Islamic State propaganda and recruitment efforts on the web following terror attacks in the US and Europe.

Regis Duvignau/Reuters
A man reads tweets on his phone in front of a displayed Twitter logo in Bordeaux, southwestern France, March 10, 2016.

At a moment when governments around the world are working harder to confront the Islamic State and its propagandists on the web, Twitter said Wednesday requests from officials to strip tweets from the service grew by nearly 13 percent in the past six months.

The company's transparency report, which highlights trends in the legal requests the social media giant receives, shows that governments are flagging more content than ever before for removal and asking for information on potential criminal and terrorist suspects. 

In the past six months, Twitter says it received 5,600 requests for information on 13,152 accounts around the world – mostly in the form of subpoenas – including more than 2,500 in the US. The company also received 5,195 government requests to remove information from 20,571 accounts, with nearly 80 percent of those requests coming from Turkey and Russia. Twitter says it withheld or removed content in response to 16 percent of government requests. 

In the US, most requests for information from accounts came from the FBI, the US Secret Service, and the New York County District Attorney’s Office.

In its previous transparency report, Twitter revealed that government officials asked for 4,617 removals from 11,092 accounts in the second half of 2015. 

Twitter isn't the only company that's seen increases in government requests for user data. Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo produce similar biannual transparency reports, aiming to strike a balance between complying with government requests for data and users' privacy concerns.

In its latest transparency report released in April, Facebook reported that government requests for account data increased by 13 percent, while the number of posts it removed as a result of law enforcement requests more than doubled.

Twitter's transparency report does not include National Security Letters, which are subpoenas that prevent the recipient from disclosing who requested the information.

That tactic that appears to have become more common in US government requests for information.

In its latest transparency report released in April, Facebook reported that 60 percent of the requests for information from US authorities contained a nondisclosure order. The social news site Reddit also removed an entire section from its most recent transparency report, suggesting the site may have received a similar order for user data. In 2014, Twitter filed suit against the US government asking for the right to report those numbers.

Although Twitter has issued transparency reports since 2012, the most recent one comes as the US government is putting greater demands on Silicon Valley to report terrorist and criminal activity on their platforms after attacks linked to the Islamic State in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., last year.

In January, prior to a court fight between Apple and the FBI over a request to help unlock the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone, the White House convened a meeting of technology executives including Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and executives from Facebook, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube calling on Silicon Valley companies to do more to combat the spread of Islamic State propaganda on their platforms.

And in the US Senate, Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D) of California proposed a bill that would give intelligence and law enforcement agencies the ability to decrypt communications of suspected criminals and terrorists. That measure has been met with fierce opposition from privacy and free speech advocates.

Speaking at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Tx., this spring, however, President Obama suggested the US government is prepared to continue the online fight against Islamic State (also known as ISIL) militants. 

"It's not enough if we're going to defeat ISIL just to take out their leadership or to control certain territories, if, in the virtual world, they are consistently reaching kids here in the United States or elsewhere in the world and recruiting them and twisting their minds to do terrible things," Mr. Obama said in a speech at SXSW. "We’ve got to be able to penetrate that."

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