While most of us were hurrying to turn off Twitter's new email digests, the company announced they would begin suggesting new people and brands to follow based on your Twitter activity. The trouble is, by "activity," they mean your friends, followers, and even where you go on the web once you leave Twitter.
What Is Twitter Doing?
Basically, every time you visit a site that has a follow button, a "tweet this" button, or a hovercard, Twitter is recording your behavior. It is transparently watching your movements and storing them somewhere for later use. Right now, that data will make better suggestions for accounts you might want to follow. But what other things can it be used for? The privacy implications of such behavior by a company so large are sweeping and absolute.
If tracking your behavior transparently is acceptable in the pursuit of a better user experience, why isn't it also acceptable in the pursuit of monetization? Is it okay for Twitter to sell your web browsing history to advertisers? The company is playing with a very slippery slope.
Essentially, remember what Facebook was doing a few months ago? Twitter is doing something similar. For the time being, Twitter is only using the information for its own purposes. It's not a stretch to think that if Twitter uses the data to suggest new brands and accounts to you, they'll use the same data to sell more promoted tweets to advertisers, or worse. Whether or not the data will be used for marketing or money-making purposes later is up in the air.
What Can I Do About It?
If the notion of Twitter keeping an eye on your browsing behavior after you've left their site feels a little intrusive, it's easily blocked with the right privacy tools:
- Twitter Disconnect stops Twitter from dropping those cookies on your system when you visit sites with "tweet" or "follow" buttons. You'll still be logged in to Twitter, and if you do want to tweet an article or follow an author, you can click the button to interact with Twitter, but no cookies will be downloaded to your computer until you click.
- Disconnect for Firefox and Chrome is from the same developer as Twitter Disconnect, but goes further. The full extension blocks Twitter, Facebook, and Google from tracking your activities by blocking the cookies they try to drop on your computer when you visit a site with a tweet button, follow box, or +1 button.
- Ghostery for Firefox and Chrome, an extension we've mentioned before, gives you complete control over the scripts and cookies that run when you visit any site. You'll be able to see which sites are dropping cookies or running scripts that call home right in your browser, and choose to block or allow any of them you choose.
- Priv3 for Firefox is lightweight and runs in the background quietly, blocking third party cookies until you interact with a social button or box.
- Do Not Track Plus for Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and IE does much of what Ghostery does—it alerts you when a page attempts to send data to another site or company when you visit, blocks the transmission, and gives you the option to unblock it if you choose.
All of these tools do similar things: they give you control over the data that the sites you visit collect and share about you.
In Twitter's defense, the company has a privacy-positive reputation. They've implimented Do Not Track, and promised to obey any browsers or clients that support it. Twitter representatives responded directly to Curtis, saying they'll will never sell your data to anyone, and data they obtain from your activities on other web sites will be deleted after no more than 10 days. Curtis rebuts that this response, and Twitter's commitment to Do Not Track is a PR distraction from the issue at hand: that their tracking—like everyone else's on the web—is opt-out, not opt-in, and forces users to understand and be outraged enough over what's going on to do something about it.
Whether you think Twitter's move is purely designed to improve their product or a creeping harbinger of future privacy intrusions, at least there are tools you can download—or that you may already have—that put control back into your hands. What do you think? Just another company looking to get their hands on your data, or much ado about nothing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.