While not the worst, Twitter is not the most innocent, either.
The social media platform we have known since 2006 has reached 336 million monthly active users with people using it for both work and pleasure. Between the searches you do and the social interactions you take part in, Twitter can get a good idea of who you are as a person. The people you choose to follow adds another dimension to the profile they have of you. Because of Tweets generally being public by nature, one journalist compared Facebook to a dinner table with family and friends and Twitter to a rousing bar. With so much information being publicly shared it’s a good time to get a grasp of what that actually looks like when it is amalgamated and what you can do about it.
In case you’re the type who wants to avoid being manipulated we don’t blame you
People have a renewed care about the data that the powerful social media platforms have access to today in large part because of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook fiasco that occurred in early 2018. This became a prime example of how deeply social media companies know and understand their users and how that information can be used. Facebook had created an API that allowed developers access to Facebook user profiles. One company (to our knowledge) used this access dishonestly and mined Facebook profiles to create software to influence people’s political decisions. This company then sold the data to Cambridge Analytica, which used the data to promote political messages to sway votes. It was said to be significant in Trump winning and the Brexit vote in Europe. Zuckerberg ended up facing questioning before U.S. Congress because of this. Complex profiles developed from information you share online can be used in a variety of ways to manipulate what you do and think.
How much does Twitter know about you?
When taking a look at what Twitter knows about me I was pretty impressed at how off they were. (It’s worth noting, though, that I don’t use Twitter as much as some people.) My age and gender were pretty significantly off, as well as some of the interests they have for me being incredibly broad and not super relevant. Some of my interests they do have right, though. So at least they have that going for them.
Tweets are already public
Google and Facebook have far more personal data because of the sheer amount people use the search engine and all the photos that are tagged—to name a few. People may be more surprised with the data collected by Facebook and Google than they are with Twitter because the premise of Twitter is sharing Tweets publicly. Anything you Tweet publicly on Twitter you can automatically assume that Twitter would have access to that. Since Twitter is heavily interest-based they do have a significant idea of what your likes are based on what you look for and who you follow.
What’s in their log?
In addition to the basic data that Twitter has on each of its users like their current location, the location from where they signed up, and phone number, they have log data from anywhere Twitter is embedded on a site. Think of the Tweet, Share, and Like buttons, as well as sites that have Twitter feeds embedded in them. They say that they don’t associate your moves online with names and email addresses, though. Avoiding having a Twitter account doesn’t leave non-users unscathed; even non-users are tracked in 30-day chunks on sites that use the Twitter API. In fact, because Twitter knows what sites you visited recently, when creating your account, new users will be prompted with relevant people to follow based on the sites they recently visited. Companies who advertise with Twitter use and integrated technology that informs Twitter of content views, actions taken, and mobile device IDs, to name a few bits of information that get fed back to the tech giant. Based on actions that you take Twitter makes good deductions on your interests and by default shares this information with their paying advertisers. You can change this setting, however.
All of your electronic devices are associated with your account for a matter of security, authentication, and personalization. This means that if you view sports content on your laptop you may be presented with sports ads on your phone.
It’s not just Twitter that has access to your data. Any apps you have given permission to connect to your Twitter account have access to bits and pieces—most frequently profile data to embed on other platforms. You can find a complete list of these of these apps through your Twitter account. They really build up over time. It’s always good to take a look from time to time to get a complete view who you are giving access to. Unless you disallow it, Twitter shares your interests with their advertisers to monetize the platform. Free accounts come at a cost! People in the European Economic Area do not have their website visits tracked, though, as a result of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
How can I see what they know?
You can find the data Twitter has on you by clicking your profile image in the upper right hand corner when you are logged in. Click “Settings and privacy” in the dropdown and then go to “Your Twitter Data.” To see how you are being targeted with ads go to “Interests and Ads Data.” This is where you can deselect different interests if their are off-base, or if you don’t want them knowing your real interests. The downside of deselecting your true interests is that ads you see will be less relevant to you. In the section called “Interests from Partners” under “Personalization and Data” you can deselect Twitter having access to the sites with Twitter integrations that you visit across the internet.
You can download the companies whose audiences you are in ( just beware that the pdf will likely be delivered to your spam folder as that’s what happened for me and several others) to get a better idea of who you are being targeted by. And you can also download all the data Twitter has on you based on your Twitter activity.
What you can do about it
If it makes you a little queezy when you realize everything Twitter knows about you and how it could be used you have several options:
- Change or delete the interests they have identified for you
- Opt out of Twitter tracking your activity on sites embedded with the Twitter API
- Turn off data personalization
Getting control back comes at a cost, though: ads may start to seem they are for anyone but you! This may not bother you, though. The decision is yours.
So far Twitter has been unscathed as far as hacks go. The closest was in 2016 when it was rumored that 32 million Twitter account passwords were discovered. Twitter has consistently said that they did not suffer a breach so we’ll give it to them that it was just a rumor.
It seems like they are on their A-game. They’ve had significantly fewer data mishaps, their settings are easier to understand, and you have a great sense of control over your data. Good job, Twitter. You certainly don’t want to let your guard down, though. With such a public life, the risks are numerous and you should be thinking about all the potential ramifications of what you share.