Is Twitter Handing Over Private Data to the Feds?

The Twitterati are only too happy to take their private moments public. But Silicon Valley's technical wizards are whispering to one another over lunch that the the federal intelligence apparatus wants more, and is taking it. (Update: Twitter denies)

Whoever is seeding the restaurant gossip is being fairly specific. A source tells us that a loose-lipped Twitter staffer recently dished at a lunch that the company has allowed a federal agency to set up a tap to monitor a "firehose" of its data, including private details on users, presumably including private "direct messages," IP addresses and account information. The Feds — the NSA would seem the most logical agency —then analyze the data to mine for information they deem of interest.

Twitter, it is said, is one of only a handful of internet companies large enough for the Feds to bother setting up such monitoring.

We called and emailed Twitter's PR department and the company's director of operations, and have not yet heard back. (Update: See below.) But it's hard to imagine the microblogging company would be happy about such an arrangement. The San Francisco company's top two executives, Evan Williams and Biz Stone, live in SF and Berkeley, respectively, and show every sign of having absorbed the Bay Area's left-field, anti-establishment culture.

Of course, the men are also capitalists with a startup to get rich off. But federal monitoring looks no better from that vantage: Twitter has trouble enough running its servers without worrying about maintaining some kind of firehose tap; the company's techno-elite and Hollywood users, meanwhile, would surely lash back hard at cooperation with the NSA, a risky proposition for a young company that has yet to turn a profit.

Whether the Valley lunch chatter is accurate or not, Twitter is bound to interact more and more with law enforcement as the volume of direct messages goes up and as public Twitter streams are woven deeper into people's sometimes tumultuous lives.

The takeaway for users is even more straightforward: If the NSA or your local police department might get the wrong idea about you message, don't put it anywhere on Twitter. The only truly direct message goes from one person's mouth to another's ear. And even that can end up on the internet. (Speaking of which: If you've heard anything about this, we'd love to hear from you.)

UPDATE: Twitter co-founder Biz Stone writes:

There is absolutely no element of truth to this allegation whatsoever.

(Pic: EFF via hughelectronic)