Once again, the U.S. federal government has run into a roadblock with the technology industry. This time Twitter is preventing government agencies from using the service to augment their intelligence-gathering activities.
On May 9, The Wall Street Journal reported that Twitter is no longer allowing partner Dataminr to provide feeds of Twitter activity to government agencies to help with their surveillance efforts.
The change does not affect government use for non-surveillance purposes. For example, Dataminr provides alerts to the World Health Organization and the company has an ongoing contract with the Department of Homeland Security in the United States.
Twitter's action follows other refusals by the tech industry to comply with requests to provide access to users' data. Earlier this year Apple refused to help the FBI unlock an iPhone 5C that was used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists. Microsoft has been refusing Justice Department demands that it turn over the contents of an email server located in Ireland.
Meanwhile, the technology industry has been uniting in resistance against government demands through public statements, lobbying efforts, advertising and other means.
Just to be fair, Twitter didn't decide to refuse access just by the U.S. government's intelligence agencies. The ban covers any government surveillance by any government.
Twitter is especially useful as a source for immediate information about actions by terrorists and others. Dataminr reportedly provided news media with alerts immediately after the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks.
Twitter cut off access to activity via Dataminr because of what the Journal called the “optics” of the situation. Optics, in this case, is a silly way of saying it doesn't like how it looks. So in other words, Twitter is cutting off surveillance activity because it looks bad.
There are a few reasons why Twitter, Apple and other tech companies think it looks bad. The initial cause was revelations by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden showed the U.S. government had been using tech companies as vehicles for spying activities.
Since then, the tech industry has felt the long arm of the government intruding in its business in ways it hadn't had to deal with previously and, in many cases, the industry deems to be illegal.
In Microsoft's case, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice tried to force the company to turn over the contents of emails stored in a foreign nation because it didn't want to follow procedures established by law and international treaties.
Likewise, the FBI tried to force Apple to unlock an iPhone at its own expense because it was in a hurry. The FBI quickly found there was another way to accomplish the same end. But being in a hurry hasn't helped the DoJ, because its attempt to force Microsoft to turn over an email has taken far longer than it would have to simply follow the established procedure.