Is it time to delete your old Tweets? Market researchers salivate at opening of Twitter Firehose

Filed Under: Featured, Privacy, Social networks, Twitter

Searching on TwitterDid you think Twitter was just for fun? That your tweets were just harmless irrelevant mutterings into the electronic ether?

You're wrong. You're taking part in a massive market-research study.

The news, which may surprise some, is that Twitter has found another way to monetise its service, having partnered with a firm which will make it simple for market researchers working for big companies to search and analyse the last two years of your Twitter updates.

Regular Twitter users can only search the site for messages posted in the last seven days or so, but Twitter has granted DataSift access to the full Twitter Firehose, allowing the UK-based firm to monitor and analyse tweets from the last 24 months, and even record sentiments and the location of Twitter users.

As the BBC reports today, DataSift is the first company in the world to offer their business customers access to potentially valuable information.

DataSiftWhat's that? You thought that tweets you posted months ago had vanished like your breath on a cold day, or were simply hidden away so deeply and awkwardly on the Twitter website that they would be too difficult to uncover?

Think again.

If you aren't comfortable with firms being able to mine your past tweets - and potentially gather information about you - you may wish to delete your old postings and think more carefully about what you share publicly on the internet in future.

Furthermore, if you haven't already done so, you may also wish to change your Twitter account settings to prevent the site from sharing your physical location when you post a tweet. Twitter offers the ability to delete location information from tweets you have made in the past.

Tweet location setting

Users who have set up "private" accounts on Twitter (rather than the more normal "public" accounts) are not included in the site's accessible archive of old tweets, and so can not be shared with market research firms.

Remember this - whether you use Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or indeed any other website - if you don't want it to become public, don't post it on the internet.

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12 Responses to Is it time to delete your old Tweets? Market researchers salivate at opening of Twitter Firehose

  1. Emjay · 883 days ago

    "[T]hink more carefully about what you share".

    And there it is.

  2. Alien Spoon · 883 days ago

    "if you don't want it to become public, don't post it on the internet."

    There is a difference between posting public stuff and having it aggregated, packaged, made searchable and sold. While I don't mind anyone reading my tweets, this is entirely different!

  3. KTT · 883 days ago

    I'm sure Google+ would never expose their users' information and sentiments. ;)

  4. Alright then, so how do we delete posts older than a month for example? on Twitter? on Facebook on Google plus?

    • petemellows · 883 days ago

      I'm not sure about Google Plus or Twitter, but Facebook is simple: open up your timeline and start deleting posts. It's time consuming, sure, but it also reminds you just what you've put out there in the past. This IMO is a valuable lesson. I only like to keep about 6 months worth of posts available, and keep my "likes" to commercial pages.

      • Joe Hayhurst · 882 days ago

        You keep your likes to commercial pages? So you can get ads targeted at you? I don't 'like' anything which can be used to target more ads at me. I even flag the ads as 'uninteresting' when I can be bothered. My reckoning is if I do that to every ad I see eventually there'll be nothing left for them to try to flog me! (Some hope).

      • Mrs. W · 882 days ago

        When I quit Facebook, I automated the deletion process somewhat with a browser add-on called iMacros. It was still tedious, but significantly less so.

        But I haven't been on Facebook in ages, so I'm not sure whether this still works with their UI.

  5. Gil Favor · 883 days ago

    "...- if you don't want it to become public, don't post it on the internet."

    All the indignation in the world about this practice by Twitter doesn't change that principle. And here's another one that's no less true — one that's especially applicable to all those who post their personal information on websites whose costs are paid by the likes of Twitter and Facebook and then feel entitled to privacy:

    Nothing is free.

    Get that through your head. When someone else fronts the money for the operating costs, they only do so because they've figured out a way to commoditize your information. Complaining about it simply means that you never understood the nature of the deal in the first place...that you never understood that YOU, your information, and the traffic they create are the product that provides the payback.

    If that upsets you, use your discomfort to your own profit in the lesson it brings, cut your losses and get out. You don't have to be there. You're not entitled to free anything. If you're so addicted that you can't give it up, seek the services of a mental health professional. But don't complain about the cost...which happens to be your privacy. No one forces you to plaster your personal information all over the Internet.

    • Tommy · 883 days ago

      Nicely said, and very true. People are very naive in thinking otherwise, but unfortunately that is the reality.

      I think I'll start a rehab clinic for ex-social website users, potentially a big business in the future. Or maybe Zuckerberg will beat me to it. O_o

  6. VFAC · 883 days ago

    I think the concern is not that the information that they chose to put on the Internet is available but perhaps that some information that they had not intended to share is able to be derived from the large dataset that twitter has amassed.

    You may have no problem tweeting about the snacks that you eat and the television shows that you like to watch. With two years of information on your snacking and television opinions could lead to inferences to the probability of you having diabetes.

    More worryingly, if Twitter has been tracking the location from which you tweet then it is possible to build up a movement profile, gain an understanding of your relationship with other people, the night that you prefer to shop and events that precipitate you spending more rather than less.

    Very large datasets provide information that was not intentionally shared. There is potential for this to be abused. If data mining can find a causal link between a minor local tragedy and swing to voting for the incumbent mayor, the temptation for company with a multi-billion dollar deal that hinges on a stable government to encourage such a condition might be too great.

    That is a pretty extreme scenario, but this is the place where the concerns are coming from.

    • Mark · 875 days ago

      To quote Bruce Schneier:

      "The people who use sites like Google and Facebook are not those companies’ customers. They are the products that those companies sell to their customers. In general: if you're not paying for it, then you're the product."

      Off topic, but his last book was a interesting read.

  7. MMS · 883 days ago

    Dead on, Gil. Couldn't agree more!

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.