PrivacyTwitter’s information policy frustrates police, delights customers

Published 30 January 2013

Twitter’s robust approach to customers’ privacy has caused consternation among law enforcement agencies, who say that Twitter’s refusal to hand over information on users of the service, except in rare cases, has frustrated criminal investigations. Twitter’s user, though, appreciate the company’s scruples.

According to Twitter’s second biannual Transparency Report, despite a litany of high profile cases involving computer hacking, harassment, and abuse through anonymous accounts on its Web site, Twitter provided information to British authorities just once in the second half of 2011.

The Telegraph reports that Twitter provided British authorities with information just once out of twenty-five requests. Details of the case that Twitter provided information on were not released.

In the United States, authorities asked Twitter for information on 815 occasions and received information in full or in part in 562 of those cases. In total, 1,009 requests for information were made of Twitter by authorities around the world. Brazil came in second, making thirty-four requests and receiving information in four cases.

According to  law enforcement agencies, Twitter’s refusal to provide information has disrupted many investigations, because identifying anonymous users on the site is difficult. While Twitter seems to have little issues working with U.S. law enforcement, the company says that British law enforcement uses international treaty arrangements to gather information which overly broad from its headquarters in Silicon Valley.

In order for British investigators to get information on an anonymous Twitter account, they have to use Britain’s mutual legal assistance treaty with the United States and get a court order in California, which can cost up to €10,000, according to a source with detailed knowledge of the arrangement.

At a Parliamentary hearing late last year, Twitter’s global head of public policy, Colin Crowell, stated that the company was not able to be as much help to police as law enforcement may think.

“We probably get fewer requests for user data than some of the other services, only because the nature of Twitter is that most of what happens there is already public anyway,” Crowell told MPs scrutinizing new laws to give authorities greater access to communications data.

“Law enforcement oftentimes simply has to go to the web on its own and can obtain the relevant Tweets that they were looking for.

“Twitter also tends to collect less user data than perhaps some of the other services. For example, we do not collect information from our users about gender, age, home street address or things of that nature.”

The reports show that requests increased 20 percent from the first six months of 2011. 

In the future, Twitter may come under public scrutiny and official pressure to relax its policies as its popularity continues to grow, but among the public, Twitter’s privacy policies could be a significant reason for the increase in the Web site’s popularity.

“This is a global problem,” Martin Hoskins, an independent data protection consultant told the Telegraph. “Authorities everywhere are looking to speed up these requests and make the process simpler.”