Twitter and Dataminr block government ‘spy centers’ from accessing user data

The government centers are partnerships between agencies that work to collect vast amounts of information purportedly to analyze ‘threats’.
The government centers are partnerships between agencies that work to collect vast amounts of information purportedly to analyze ‘threats’. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images


Twitter has blocked federally funded “domestic spy centers” from using a powerful social media monitoring tool after public records revealed that the government had special access to users’ information for controversial surveillance efforts.

The American Civil Liberties Union of California discovered that so-called fusion centers, which collect intelligence, had access to monitoring technology from Dataminr, an analytics company partially owned by Twitter. The ACLU’s records prompted the companies to announce that Dataminr had terminated access for all fusion centers and would no longer provide social media surveillance tools to any local, state or federal government entities.

The government centers are partnerships between agencies that work to collect vast amounts of information purportedly to analyze “threats”. The spy centers, according to the ACLU, target protesters, journalists and others protected by free speech rights while also racially profiling people deemed “suspicious” by law enforcement.

“These are massive hubs for information collection and monitoring and surveillance of individuals,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of California. “The information they collect is often about innocent people.”

The revelations about the potential collaboration between the government centers and private technology companies are particularly alarming given heightened concerns about mass surveillance under President-elect Donald Trump.

Records that the ACLU obtained uncovered that a fusion center in southern California had access to Dataminr’s “geospatial analysis application”, which allowed the government to do location-based tracking as well as searches tied to keywords. That means the center could use Dataminr to search billions of tweets and monitor specific demographics or organizations.

In one email, Dataminr told Los Angeles police that its product could be customized to track protests, adding: “Twitter owns part of Dataminr (5%) so our access to their data is unmatched – no other company ingests the full firehouse of 500 million tweets in real-time … Twitter has been very clear with my CEO: ‘Dataminr is the only company with full, unrestricted access.’”

A Dataminr brochure touted the use of the company’s geospatial analysis application to monitor a student demonstration in South Africa by tracking hashtags and keywords.

Although Twitter has since cut off the spy centers’ access, some have argued that social media companies should have had stronger protections in place so that this kind of partnership and data sharing doesn’t happen in the first place.

By giving government agencies access to these tools, Dataminr was also clearly violating Twitter’s policy prohibiting the use of its data for surveillance, according to the ACLU.

“It’s really even more important now than ever that the companies have strong policies in place and that they have the right auditing and enforcement to make sure those rules are followed,” Ozer said.


What’s the best way to set up a Windows 10 machine?

Alcatel Plus 10 Windows 10 2-in-1 convertible tablet.
Alcatel Plus 10 Windows 10 2-in-1 convertible tablet. Photograph: Alcatel

My daughter has asked for a Windows laptop for Christmas, for schoolwork and games. I’m a Mac user and haven’t set up a Windows machine for many years so I’d appreciate any advice … except “get her a Mac/Linux” from below the line! Stuart

Windows has changed a lot in the past decade, and now it’s a mobile operating system. If your daughter has some experience with Google Android, she’ll probably cope quite well. Many of Windows 10’s main features came from the mobile world. These include sandboxed apps installed and updated from an online store, log-on PINs, touch screens, notifications, a voice-aware intelligent assistant (Cortana), location awareness and a “Find my device” feature.

Your daughter should ideally have some information ready before going through Windows 10’s “out of box experience”, or OOBE, as it’s known in the trade. Some are obvious: country, preferred language, time zone etc. She should also have your Wi-Fi password, and a working email address for her log-on. Otherwise, she can choose Express Settings to speed up the process. She can change the settings later.

Microsoft Accounts

Your daughter can use any email address as her Microsoft account (MSA). It’s the Microsoft equivalent of a Google Account (Gmail address) or an Apple ID. It’s used to link her laptop to OneDrive cloud storage, the Windows Store, Skype, Cortana’s personalisation data, the free online Microsoft Office programs etc. It also links her PC to other Windows devices, Android and Apple smartphones and tablets, Xbox One games consoles, and so on. Finally, the MSA stores the laptop’s activation details (which used to be a product key) and encryption keys.

People typically use an existing Microsoft email address. This can be at Hotmail, Live, MSN, or whatever. If she doesn’t have one, the Windows 10 set-up procedure will create one. However, it’s simpler and less stressful to have one ready to go.

When your daughter enters her email address and password, Windows 10’s Mail app will automatically download recent emails. If she has used this account on a Windows machine before, Windows 10 will offer to set up her new laptop with the same settings. This includes her wallpaper (desktop background) and any apps she has downloaded from the Windows Store.

Once logged on to Windows 10, click the Start button in the bottom left, type ‘get’ in the Search box and click the “Get Started” app. This introduces most of Windows 10’s features, and includes around 50 short videos. The What’s New section covers Cortana and the Edge browser. I strongly recommend watching Reduce Distractions, a two-minute video in the Ease of Access section. It shows how to remove unwanted animations, tiles, pinned programs, and so on.


Uber blames humans for self-driving car traffic offenses as California orders halt

in San Francisco


California regulators ordered Uber to remove its self-driving vehicles from the road on the same day that the company’s vehicles were caught running red lights – violations the company immediately blamed on “human error”.

“It is essential that Uber takes appropriate measures to ensure safety of the public,” the California department of motor vehicles (DMV) wrote to Uber on Wednesday after it defied government officials and began piloting the cars in San Francisco without permits. “If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action.”

An Uber spokesperson said two red-light violations were due to mistakes by the people required to sit behind the steering wheel and said the company has suspended the drivers.

A video posted by Charles Rotter, an operations manager at Luxor, a traditional cab company, shows one of Uber’s computer-controlled cars plowing through a pedestrian crosswalk in downtown about four seconds after the light turned red. Elsewhere, a photo from a San Francisco writer showed one of the Uber vehicles entering an intersection against a red light.

“People could die,” Rotter said in an interview later. “This is obviously not ready for primetime.”

The traffic violations and threat of legal action are a significant blow to Uber in its home town, where the California department of motor vehicles has said that Uber requires permits to test the technology on its roads.

Despite that stated mandate from a government agency, Uber declared in a blogpost that it did not believe it needed a “testing permit” to launch self-driving vehicles in San Francisco, arguing that the rules don’t apply since the cars have people in them monitoring movements.

“Most states see the potential benefits, especially when it comes to road safety,” wrote Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s advanced technology group. His post announcing the Wednesday launch noted the Volvo XC90s’ “core safety capabilities”.