NSA PRISM Program: Amid the Tech Giants, Where's Twitter?

Amid public outrage that the United States has been secretly mining data on foreigners through partnerships with nine U.S. tech giants — a story that broke late last week after The Guardian and The Washington Post published a series of leaked PowerPoint slides related to the program — many people have pointed out that one name is conspicuously absent from the list of tech firms…

Twitter.

According to the reports, the first company to join the program was Microsoft, in September of 2007 — a year after Twitter was founded, and shortly before it became a major social and geopolitical player.

John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project, thinks it may be due to the nature of the Twitter platform — very little is designed for private activity (with the exception of direct messages, and a relatively limited number of protected accounts). Most of the platform is public, and already accessible to just about anyone with an internet connection.

“There really isn’t much in the Twitter business model that incorporates much private back and forth,” Simpson explains. “If [Twitter] was in fact asked to be part of the program, I’d like to think that they rejected for the right reasons. The other companies that did take part should be ashamed of themselves.”

It seems fairly unlikely that Twitter would be able to just reject, however, given that the number of immensely powerful tech giants that seem to have been forced into cooperation. Many of the firms have released statements affirming their commitment to user privacy, and noting that they fight to protect their data to the full extent of the law. Does Twitter just have better lawyers? Did the NSA pass it up? Or are they simply involved elsewhere? 

“Just because the PowerPoint slides featured in the Guardian and Washington Post reporting had a timeline of when each tech firm signed up,” Simpson continues, “it does not preclude that others are involved in the program. So we don’t know for sure that Twitter is not being used for something.”

“The [other companies] make up a larger, richer, more substantive base of information than Twitter,” explains Jeramie Scott of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “Given the limits [of what] you can input for any particular tweet, the amount of information is lower than what you can access in other services.” Much of Twitter’s power as a platform comes from a large number of fairly innocuous micro-messages, rather than a select number of super juicy ones.

(It is also fairly hard to imagine a sneaky terrorist chatting up his plots to his buds in 140 characters or less.)

The company does boast a strong privacy record, taking on the government multiple times over the years in legal efforts to protect users’ privacy. They challenged a subpoena filed in 2011 by the Department of Justice, requesting private information related to WikiLeaks, and then appealed a ruling requiring them to turn over the once-public tweets of an Occupy Wall Street protester a year later.