Beware the Twitter

Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper has a piece today about Twitter‘s plan to sell its data. The piece is full of drama, fear mongering , paranoia and plain old conspiracy theories. Here is the first paragraph:

It seems that Twitter, the most famous social network in the world, was able to throw integrity out of the window when they announced previously that they have signed a two-year agreement with a British company called DataSift to organize the archived tweets of users. At the time they have not announced their intentions behind that archiving, but those intentioned became clear after the British company said that Twitter users can get all their tweets since 2010 using the British company’s website. Several sources from Twitter’s developers forum said the social network’s goal behind archiving tweets is to categorize the content according to issues, preferences and wishes to sell it to marketing and security organizations.

The story that Twitter is selling users’ tweets to data companies is an old one. It first surfaced in February when Twitter announced licensing deals that allow two companies to access its database of tweets. Reuters reported:

Boulder, Colorado-based Gnip Inc and DataSift Inc, based in the U.K. and San Francisco, are licensed by Twitter to analyze archived tweets and basic information about users, like geographic location. DataSift announced this week that it will release Twitter data in packages that will encompass the last two years of activity for its customers to mine, while Gnip can go back only 30 days.

To offer some insight into Twitter’s 9-months-old decision, al-Eqtisdiah speaks to one Abdullah al-Shammari, who is described as a political doctor “who is active on Twitter.” After helpfully explaining that “social media is a service, like any service, that can be sold and purchased,” he said that intelligence agencies now have to follow social media, which has become part of the open sources of information that have historically made up 70-80% of any foreign country intelligence about other countries.

Asked if Twitter has the right to sell tweets for those who want to buy them, al-Shammari said the logical thing is to protect private information which can only be revealed by a court’s order. He added that there are countries that criminalize the use of private information.

Um, sorry, but the default setting for tweets is that they are public. They are not private information. Unless you choose to hide your tweets, they are public information that you voluntarily put out there.

Al-Shammari warned that intelligence agencies of hostile countries like Iran could mine the tweets from the Gulf or the Saudi society then analyze them to know the points of weakness and somehow use them to study our public opinion and social behavior.

Evil, evil Iranians.

But he acknowledges that local government agencies can use the feedback via Twitter to correct their mistakes and improve their performance. “Here, and contrary to the common impression, we can say that Twitter can be used to serve the state,” al-Shammari said.

However, the last paragraph raises some unsettling questions about those damn tweets, such as: “Is there enough information [on Twitter] that can be used against the Saudi society? Is there going to be an opposite opinion?”

Al-Shammari decides, in the end, to take a U-turn:

There is no reason to worry because the goal of Twitter is “to vent.” Tweets are spontaneous and not well thought out, they have very little information, and opinions offered on Twitter do not accurately represent society.

Oh, really? Why all the fear mongering and paranoia, then?