In March of this year, news of Cambridge Analytica’s use of data illegally collected on as many as 87 million Facebook users sent shockwaves throughout the world.
The flimsy nature in which Facebook sells data access to third parties came to light, and we learned just how much the use and abuse of this data can shape the landscapes of global power and politics.
(See: the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.)
Skeptics and conspiracy theorists have long been suspicious of how tech companies collect and sell data and the Orwellian consequences that mass data collection poses.
But this weekend, we learned that Facebook is hardly the only tech giant that’s had questionable business dealings when it comes to user data.
Twitter Finally Speaks Up
In a statement issued to Bloomberg, Twitter acknowledged that in 2015, it sold public access data to the tech firm Global Science Research (GSR). GSR had one-day access to data on random tweets from December 2014 to April 2015, via application programming interfaces (APIs).
GSR, of course, is the same firm that illegally mined social data from Facebook, which it then sold to Cambridge Analytica — which was hired by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the summer of 2016 to direct its digital advertising efforts.
(In fact, Donald Trump’s campaign manager and former Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon was one of the founders of Cambridge Analytica.)
Per its “own internal review,” Twitter says there is no sign that GSR breached users’ privacy. And yet, the news is just the latest signal of how precarious the business of metadata collection truly is.
The problem comes down to accountability. Once Facebook, Twitter, or Google sells data access to a third party firm, the way that data is used is completely out of the hands of the social media and tech platforms. What’s more troubling is that once data mining access is granted, there’s little oversight to ensure that only the data that has been agreed to be sold is what’s being collected.
In the case of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, only a fraction of the users whose data was mined had actually granted consent, via a third party personality app designed by GSR.
The Slippery Slope of Profitability
With as many as 330 million global users as of the end of 2017, Twitter is as popular as it’s ever been.
But unlike Facebook, which made $4.99 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2018 — a remarkable 63% increase from last year — Twitter has long struggled to make a profit.
CEO Jack Dorsey took no compensation in 2017 for the third consecutive year, signaling his commitment to the long-term viability of the company despite its current lack of profitability.
Twitter’s recent business practices, however, suggest that the social media platform is on the scent to becoming profitable.
In 2017, data sales accounted for 13% of Twitter’s revenue, and in the first quarter of this year, “data licensing and other revenue” grew by 20% year over year.
Since the first of May last year, Twitter shares are up 67%.
The vast majority (some 86%) of Twitter’s revenue continues to come from advertising. But its share growth in light of expanding the data sales component of its business suggests that this is an area the company will continue to pursue and build upon.
So what does this mean for Twitter users?
Barring new federal oversight for how third parties collect and use data from social media platforms, we now understand that anyone who uses Twitter, Facebook, or even Google is at the whims of of the highest bidder.
And in the case of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, we learned just how consequential those whims can be. It’s highly probable that illegal data collection influenced millions of voters and perhaps even led to Donald Trump’s electoral victory.
Twitter’s Sin of Omission?
Twitter’s admission of having sold data access to GSR may be viewed by many as forthcoming and transparent. Further, the way GSR used data collected from Twitter seems less egregious than what it did with the data it illegally mined from Facebook.
But the timing of Twitter’s statement is dubious.
Just a few weeks ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress to address the Cambridge Analytica bombshell (during which, it should be noted, we saw just how great the chasm is between Washington and Silicon Valley — specifically, how little lawmakers seem to understand about how Big Tech companies operate).
Dorsey — along with Google CEO Sundar Pichai — is also expected to testify before Congress at some point in the coming months. Inevitably, he will be asked about the company’s involvement with firms like GSR and Cambridge Analytica.
Twitter, therefore, took a proactive approach by acknowledging that it did business with GSR, in order to mitigate awkward confrontations on Capitol Hill.
To what end GSR used that data is thus far unclear.
What is clear, however, is that in April of 2015 — shortly after Twitter presumably sold public data access to GSR — Twitter abruptly and unexpectedly cut off “firehouse access” to third party data resellers, the two major ones being DataShift and NTT Data.
(“Firehouse access” refers to raw, unfiltered streams of tweet and other media on Twitter.)
At the time, the move was seen as a way for Twitter to be more intimately involved with big data collection on its platform.
Whether it was Twitter’s reaction to something it knew about the way GSR was collecting data — and perhaps how that data could be used to influence elections — remains to be seen.
And until there is legislation and oversight in place to regulate how and to whom big tech companies sell its users’ data, knowing that your data could be used to affect certain political outcomes comes with the risk of logging on.