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Twitter yanks US spy agencies' access to real-time alerts tool

It's not thrilled by the prospect of US intelligence types using a data miner to rifle through user tweets without limit, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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Twitter HQ sign.

Twitter doesn't lack for real-time data.

James Martin/CNET

Microblogging platform Twitter has stopped US law enforcement and intelligence services from using a data analytics service that can process and analyze the platform's tweets and messages.

On Sunday, a senior US official and other people close to the matter told the Wall Street Journal that Twitter's move, while not made public, has underlined the growing tension between technology companies and the US government.

The analytics service in question is not a direct offering by Twitter. Instead, Dataminr is a private firm that mines feeds and communication on Twitter for use by clients.

Its capabilities could give intelligence agencies a valuable heads-up in some scenarios. For example, the firm alerted the US to the Paris terror attacks as they unfolded, and other clients received word of Brussels roughly 10 minutes before mainstream media began reporting on the attacks, the Journal reported.

Dataminr counts US law enforcement as a client, and Twitter has become concerned about being seen as too close or cozying up to federal agencies, a perception that could impact user trust. Twitter owns a 5 percent stake in the company.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Over the past few years, tech firms have butted heads with US law enforcement and lawmakers over a range of issues including terrorism, encryption and privacy.

Apple was recently embroiled in a fight with US agencies over breaking into an iPhone, Microsoft is fighting a warrant issued by the US Department of Justice requiring it to hand over email content, and Google has backed Apple in the debate against enforced mobile device backdoor installation for US intelligence purposes.

Peter Swire, a Georgia Institute of Technology law professor, told the Wall Street Journal:

"Post-Snowden, American-based information technology companies don't want to be seen as an arm of the US intelligence community."

Disclosures by whistleblower Edward Snowden had impact far beyond scrutiny of the US National Security Agency's practices, sparking debate on whether the average user has a right to privacy, whether encryption, which can be difficult for law enforcement to tackle, should be offered by device vendors, and how companies can preserve basic security without intentionally making products vulnerable for the benefit of intelligence.

Twitter has had a longstanding policy that does not allow data to be sold to government agencies for spying purposes, and although Dataminr may have given US intelligence information for some time, the millions of tweets and messages sent every day across Twitter will now have to be reviewed by another means if the agency wishes to mine the platform.

The company's service is one of many social media outlets used by threat groups including ISIS to communicate, but this data is generally public and is still up for grabs by government groups if they wish to use it.

This story originally appeared at ZDNet under the headline "Twitter bars spy agencies from analytics service that spots terror attacks."