News & Analysis

Is Twitter Really the Platform for Free Expression?


The unbridled expansion of our digital footprint over the past few years is now generating concerns around protection of personal data,  given that 90 per cent of all human race who use the internet are susceptible to surveillance. In the process, the social media, that came to fore as platforms for free expression, are now proving to not so, given that unscrupulous elements could well be selling data.

Writing for TechCrunch, Devin Coldewey says that Saudi Arabian officials allegedly paid at least two employees of Twitter to access personal information on users the government there was interested in. The two accused were employed by the frustrated Saudi Arabian government to illegally spy on thousands of social media users to crack down the critics of the authority.

According to a report published in the Economic Times, the complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi government officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of Twitter accounts, including email addresses linked to the accounts and internet protocol addresses that can give up a user’s location.

The complaint alleges that the two accused former employees of Twitter – Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen and Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, were not positioned in the role which could give them access to Twitter users’ private information. The Saudi government had allegedly rewarded them with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funnelled into secret bank accounts.

These actions by Saudi Arabia may not come as a surprise, given that the world is aware of how the conservative kingdom functions. However, what is of a bigger concern is the fact that our data could be up for sale and someone who has the money or the clout could easily access it to single one out for special treatment from a regressive regime.

In a statement quoted by the Economic Times, Twitter said, “We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work.” But is Twitter really standing by its words? The answer is clearly no.

Mike Chapple, who teaches cybersecurity at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, was quoted by the Economic Times, as saying, “Had Twitter implemented the tools to protect its users’ privacy, this misappropriation of information would not have been possible.” He added Social media companies must understand the sensitivity of this information and restrict access to the smallest possible number of employees. Failing to do so puts the privacy, and even the physical safety, of social media users at risk.

Mr. Shuva Mandal, Managing Partner at Fox Mandal & Associates, a law firm, told CXOToday in an email response that “Although privacy slips are a major concern, heightened social media monitoring by government agencies would further deter free speech. Laws need to achieve a fine balance between privacy and freedom of expression without being too restrictive or over-inclusive. The purpose is to prevent potential misuse and not impede individual development attained through the exercise of basic human rights.”

The situation is alarming for all. We must really think if we are safe enough on platforms like Twitter and Facebook with constantly rising privacy concerns. Are we really left with the freedom of expression if we are being continuously monitored?

The situation also poses an important question around the integrity threat to organisations. External hackers are no more needed given that those inside can provide the data for the price of a watch!

Maybe, it is time that social media giants or perhaps every enterprise in the world needs to focus on ethics sessions as part of their on-boarding programs.

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