Is Twitter Spying on your DM's?

Look out Indian Country: What Happens in Twitter DMs Might not Stay in Twitter DMs!

Lisa J. Ellwood

Arranging a teepee creep at the pow wow on the down low? Well don’t use Twitter Direct Messages (DM’s) if absolute privacy is what you need to arrange that hook-up.

So, we know a lot of you are on twitter. And you’ve probably heard rumors that say some of the algorithms are invading your privacy, and that somebody is doing something about it. Well, the last part is true. So, is it real? The experts are not so sure.

The Hollywood Reporter broke the story that a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of all Americans who have sent or received Direct Messages on Twitter and seeks damages that would amount to about “$100 per day for each Twitter user whose privacy was violated.”

Wilford Raney of Texas brought the suit in Federal Court in San Francisco, claiming that Twitter is using URL shorteners in violation of California privacy law and the Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Raney‘s complaint alleges that "Twitter surreptitiously eavesdrops on its users’ private direct message communications. As soon as a user sends a direct message, Twitter intercepts, reads, and, at times, even alters the message."

The violation example given in the lawsuit uses a New York Times link; if a user shares a link using Twitter private direct message system to a story on providing a full URL, Twitter changes this into a custom shortened link such as “http:/” while still displaying the text.

Although it is the services’ algorithms making the change rather a human being, this is problematic, according to Raney’s complaint: “Twitter benefits immensely from replacing user hyperlinks with its own. For instance, Twitter increases its perceived value to third-party websites and would-be advertisers. That is, in the example given, the New York Times would identify Twitter as the source of internet traffic, whereas without replacing the link the source would be anonymous. The end result is that Twitter can negotiate better advertising rates.”

Twitter responded to an enquiry from Tech Crunch stating: “We believe these claims are meritless and we intend to fight them.”

Will it be borne out? The likelihood, according to tech bloggers and Twitter watchers is…no chance.  According to an interview with University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo in USA Today the lawsuit will fall flat for two reasons: “Either the judge will decide an algorithm changing links or scanning for keywords is no different than a spellcheck or other automated program that people don't object to or the plaintiffs will not be able to demonstrate harm that a court would remedy.”

"What Twitter is doing is probably not legally actionable any more than Gmail scanning emails for advertising," said Calo.   

The claim can be read in full via The Hollywood Reporter on documentcloud.


Follow ICTMN Correspondent Lisa Ellwood on Twitter at

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