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.


Indie video games saved my 2016

The Stugan game development retreat in Sweden
The Stugan game development retreat in Sweden. Photograph: Mark Backler

Over the summer, I spent a month at Stugan, a Swedish “game development acceleration camp”. That may sound like a faintly sinister concept, but it was in fact stupidly idyllic. The eight-week event, organised by alumni from game publishers Rovio and King, took place in adorable red wooden cabins perched on a hill overlooking a lake – apparently called “Bjursen”, although we just called it The Lake, because we couldn’t pronounce anything correctly. While not working on our game development projects, we watched meteor showers from a nearby mountaintop, swam beneath the Northern Lights, and sat around a campfire getting sloshed on schnapps.

The Stugan attendees were from all over the world, but we’d ended up in this tiny corner of Scandinavia, brought together by the one thing we shared: the desire to create and play video games. I turned up three weeks late, and already an outsider as the only journalist, but within a few days I felt like I’d been welcomed as one of the team. There with me were people like Ivan Notaros, an incredibly talented Serbian developer who was ostensibly making a game called House of Flowers based on his experience and knowledge of the war in Yugoslavia in the 90s, but spent much of his time making tiny games, procedurally generated art, and incredible low-res photogrammetry of us as a group. There were Michael and Laura, a married team who were making a game despite being animators rather than programmers, using their artistic style to inform what their project, Thin Air, would become.

Stugan (Swedish for ‘cabin’) is a two-month game creation retreat. Developers have to apply to attend, and if selected get to stay for free

Auston and Diana, another couple, were making Catdate – a game that seems like a simple dating sim (but with cats) but revealed itself to be a touching, meaningful exploration of connection, friendship and learning how to communicate with others. Robbie, Dorianne and Marc, the only three-person team, all from South Africa, were working on Kingdom in the Sky, a project they’d been unable to work on for months because of their full-time jobs. Mira and Tanja, a team of two women, one Swedish and one Danish, collaborated on their two-player game Tick Tock, when they weren’t playing incredibly tense rounds of Magic: The Gathering. The trailers of these games, and the others made during Stugan 2016, are all worth watching.

It’s largely because of Stugan that I’ve started making my own games. My first – Awkward Dating Simulator – has been downloaded over 1,000 times already, which is amazing and terrifying. Next year, I’ll be taking part in Train Jam – a 52-hour train ride from Chicago to the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, where developers make games as the scenery rushes by. I’m doing it just to be around those people and that feeling again.


Pokémon Go: amorphous blob Ditto makes its debut

A Ditto in the very first Pokemon game.
A Ditto in the very first Pokemon game. Photograph: Nintendo


Pokémon Go has finally given players a big reason to come back to the game: the introduction of the first new Pokemon since it launched back in July.

Pokémon trainers can now catch Ditto, an amorphous blob that can transform into any other Pokemon using its signature move “mimic”. But there’s a catch.

You won’t see Ditto on the world map, the overview screen where players see which Pokémon are around them. That’s because it’s hiding in plain sight, disguised as other Pokémon. In other words, that Ratatta or Pidgey you wouldn’t normally bother with? If you catch it, it might be a Ditto.

Ditto was caught?!
Ditto was caught?! Photograph: Niantic Labs

If someone else nearby you has caught the Ditto in the area already, it will show up marked in its true form.

Once you’ve caught Ditto, it acts largely like you’d expect. You can take it to a Pokémon gym, where it will transform itself into a copy of the first Pokémon you fight, stealing its moves. Unless it’s another Ditto, in which case both blobs will sit there, uselessly blobbing at each other with a basic attack.

As if that isn’t a good enough reason to pop back to Pokémon Go, the game is also offering double XP and stardust for the next week, to “say thank you” to the community. It’s almost as though Niantic Labs knows it’s Thanksgiving in the US and wants to make the most of the fact that people might have more time to play the game.