Critique's Zone

Is Twitter Encroaching On The Privacy Of Its Users?

Ever since the Cambridge Analytica data scandal came tumbling out of the closet, the issue of data protection has come to the fore. Users are concerned about the data they submit to government authorities and social media platforms. The news reports on data of users being accessed, used and sold by third party entities have become a regular feature. In the shady business of accessing data, hackers still rule the roost. However, company policies regarding data storage and usage also help others obtain data .

When the scandal shed light on this grey area of business of social media platforms; companies went into a reset. Facebook after being hit by the scandal changed its rules. It made changes and gave the users a greater control over their data. Were the changes sufficient? The news reports do not seem to suggest so. Other social media organisations too incorporated such changes to avoid future controversies. But what happens when such an organisation has the power to change your settings?

Twitter seems to have tumbled into such a controversy. Yesterday evening as I was scrolling through my twitter feed, I came across a tweet from a fellow user sharing a screenshot of Twitter’s rules and policies. What was so alarming about it? In their help centre, listed under their rules and policies was the following

We may also change your account setting to Mark media you Tweet as containing material that may be sensitive so that future posts are marked accordingly.

Twitter Help Centre

There is a wide variety of content circulating on social media that can be flagged as sensitive. From streaming suicides live to displaying animal cruelty, and from showcasing gore to aid viewers to view porgraphic clips; all of it is accessible on these sites. These platforms act as fact checkers and content regulators to limit their use for nefarious purposes. But the above policy of Twitter is a cause for alarm. Why is it so?

In a world, where data is the most powerful tool; its privacy takes the utmost precedence. Companies and governments across the world are looking to mine the data of people in the name of healthcare, security and whatever other reasons they can cite. The criticism of the Patriot Act of USA. A push back against the use of Aadhar in India. The growing reluctance to use Chinese apps and Chinese software services due to the surveillance policies of the Chinese government. All of these stem from the concern of people wanting to protect their own data. To retain control over the tweets, posts, images and videos they share over the internet.

Coming back to Twitter, the social media platform provides users to mark the content they post as sensitive. At times, tweets that either flagged or reported are marked as sensitive. The option for the users to exercise the option of marking their account or content as sensitive is available under the privacy settings. But if Twitter feels that content regularly posted by a user is sensitive, the social media platform can change the settings of the users account.

What does that mean? It means that Twitter can access the privacy settings of the users. It can unilaterally change the privacy settings of any account, if they deem the content to be sensitive. This causes great alarm as an anonymous person, a Twitter official has unfettered access to the privacy settings of all existing users.

While algorithms and physical reporting of handles are used to monitor whether content available on the platform is sensitive; it is a human interface that acts on the issue. The employee dealing with the issue has an opportunity to tamper with the other settings as well. The changes can be made for limited durations of time. During that time period, the employee can gather private data of the users and later sell to interested parties.

It is a scary situation to be in. The idea of Twitter having the power to change your privacy settings is quite concerning. There is another aspect to it. Repeated flagging of content of an user allows Twitter to mark all future content posted by the handle to be sensitive. From memes and cartoons to sharing of news clips and articles, everything will be considered sensitive. Such a policy initiates a blanket shadowban on the content of users whose accounts are termed sensitive.

In the name of regulation of content Twitter has armed itself with access to privacy settings of the users. The process of handling the matters of sensitive content is quite opaque. In the recent past, Twitter has warned users about bugs that have compromised data despite accounts being fitted to certain settings. Did the fiddling around of users privacy settings during the regulatory actions allow the data to be compromised? Twitter needs to come clean about its ability to control privacy settings . It needs to assure that its employees did not tamper with privacy and security settings of its users and their data is safe.

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