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    Plan a Terrorist Attack? Why not Tweet about it?
    Posted: 2012-08-16 05:00:05


    Has Twitter become the ultimate black hole of all mankind’s darkest secrets? Possibly. People have always been keen on sharing their stories with others. Interestingly enough, this is also true when they have something sinister to tell – a fact that has put authorities on the alert and prompted them to pursue Twitter as a way to trace those ‘eager’ individuals.

    Recently, a story was published in CNN about how the NYPD planned to subpoena Twitter in order to make it reveal the identity of an individual that posted an attack threat on Twitter. Someone made a tweet about attacking Mike TysonÂ’s one man show on Broadway, creating a big stir and a bit of a scare. Given the number of recent shooting incidents in theUnited States, authorities have begun taking any possible threats very seriously.

    Two major issues emerge from this story. One is the issue of balancing online privacy of individuals with the need for security. This issue is an old one. People resist the notion of having public authorities getting access to their private information without permission. At the same time, they recognize the need for security and for protecting public wellbeing. Yet no one knows where to draw the balance.

    The second issue has to do with the role that companies (especially internet-based) play in preventing crime and protecting privacy. Companies like Twitter should not be surprised when they become the target of security investigations. As they create public forums for communicating and publishing free messages (like tweets), people are bound to take advantage of them and disseminate all kinds of information. Their privacy policies acknowledge this fact and warn users that private information may be disclosed in order to comply with the law.

    An interesting twist arises out of the Twitter article though. It seems that privacy policies give these companies some power over when to disclose information. As they have strong incentives to protect their users’ privacy, these companies are likely to err on not disclosing. Question is how they decide when to disclose or not. According to the “Twitter Transparency Report” in the first half of 2012 they disclosed some or all information the government requested in 75%. It is not clear how many of these requests were accompanied by a subpoena. Therefore, acting as gatekeepers against intrusion by government authorities, companies like Twitter certainly have a role to play in protecting privacy and preventing crime.

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