Twitter will pay $150 million fine over allegations it sold user data improperly: NPR

Federal regulators on Wednesday announced a settlement with Twitter over its use of user privacy.

Matt Rourke/AP

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Matt Rourke/AP

Federal regulators on Wednesday announced a settlement with Twitter over its use of user privacy.

Matt Rourke/AP

Twitter has agreed to pay a $150 million fine after federal law enforcement officials accused the social media company of illegally using people’s personal information to help sell targeted ads for six years.

In court documents released Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice say Twitter violated a 2011 agreement with regulators in which the company promised not to use information collected for security purposes, such as phone numbers and email addresses of users, to help advertisers target people with ads.

Federal investigators say Twitter has broken that promise.

“As the complaint points out, Twitter obtained user data under the pretense of using it for security purposes, but then also used the data to target users with advertisements,” FTC chairman Lina Khan said.

Twitter requires users to provide a phone number and email address to verify accounts. That information also helps people reset their passwords and unlock their accounts when the company blocks login due to suspicious activity.

But until at least September 2019, Twitter also used that information to boost its advertising activities by giving advertisers access to users’ phone numbers and email addresses. That went against the agreement the company had with regulators.

“If you tell people you use their phone numbers to secure their accounts and then use them for other purposes, you’re cheating them and breaking the law,” said Sam Levine, chief of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer. Protection, in an interview with NPR.

More than 140 million Twitter users have provided this type of personal information based on “deceptive Twitter posts,” federal prosecutors said.

“Consumers who share their personal information have a right to know if that information is being used to help advertisers target customers,” said US attorney Stephanie Hinds for the Northern District of California.

Twitter’s chief privacy officer, Damien Kieran, acknowledged in a blog post that users’ personal information “may have been inadvertently used for advertising.”

He said the company no longer sells information collected for security purposes to advertisers.

“Keeping data safe and respecting privacy is something we take extremely seriously and we have worked with the FTC every step of the way,” Kieran wrote.

Under the terms of a proposed agreement, Twitter agreed to no longer benefit from information collected for security purposes. The deal, which still needs court approval, would also limit employees’ access to users’ personal data.

The move reflects a sweeping settlement that included a $5 billion fine against Facebook in 2019, in which the social media giant committed to stop selling information obtained for security purposes to advertisers.

Justin Brookman, the director of technology policy at Consumer Reports, said that as regulators continue to crack down on targeted advertising, companies like Twitter, which have long relied on tracking tools, could be in trouble.

“We’re seeing a confluence of regulators, but also browsers and operating systems, fewer cookies and fewer tools that companies use to track people across services,” Brookman said. “I think in some ways a lot of these tools are going away and businesses will have to find new ways to monetize, that the days of just money printing from targeted ads are coming to an end.”

The settlement comes during a precarious time on Twitter.

The company has been in a state of crisis since Tesla CEO Elon Musk launched a hostile takeover of the $44 billion social media site last month.

Musk recently stated that the deal is “temporarily on hold”, arguing that he must first determine how widespread bot accounts are on the site.

But corporate merger experts and members of Twitter’s CEO have noted that the deal is still going ahead, as Musk has a legally binding contract with the company pending review by shareholders and regulators.

Musk has not yet commented on Wednesday’s settlement.

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