What does Twitter know about you?

Emma McGowan 10 Aug 2021

Twitter likes to suck up a lot of data, but it also lets users have a say in a good amount of the data that it collects

Twitter’s original goal was to make it possible for one person to speak to many people all at once — basically, the biggest group chat anyone had ever imagined. So it’s probably not surprising that privacy isn’t really the first thing that people think about when they’re using Twitter. The goal, after all, is to be out in the open.

But when we’re talking about privacy in What Does the Internet Know About Me?, we’re talking about privacy from the corporations themselves — i.e. what data they’re collecting and what they’re doing with that data. So, this week, let’s take a look at what Twitter (not what Twitter users) know about me.

What data does Twitter collect? 

Twitter, like most “free” online services, pays their bills via advertising. And, like most social media, they’re big on targeted advertising. As regular readers know, targeted advertising is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to collecting more data on users than (we’d argue) is strictly necessary. 

With that in mind, here’s the information Twitter knows about me, according to their Privacy Policy:

  • My basic account info, including my username, profile information, location, when I joined, my personal website, and what I look like. (You can also share your birthday, but I haven’t.)

  • Contact information, including email address or phone number.
    • Can be used to “personalize our services, including ads.”
  • Location information

  • Any engagement I have with ads, including liking, retweeting, replying or “otherwise publicly engaging with an ad.”
    • That information might be shared with advertisers. 
  • Twitter also tracks users off the site, if you don’t choose to opt out.

What does Twitter do with the data they collect? 

Twitter uses the data they collect about users to, firstly, connect people around the world. (That massive group chat idea turned out to be a very good one.) They also use it for advertising, both on and off the site. According to their Privacy Policy: 

“Our ad partners and affiliates share information with us such as browser cookie IDs, mobile device IDs, hashed email addresses, demographic or interest data, and content viewed or actions taken on a website or app. Some of our ad partners, particularly our advertisers, also enable us to collect similar information directly from their website or app by integrating our advertising technology.”

All of that data — which includes the information Twitter collects both on and off site, as well as any data in the databases that their advertisers have access to — is used to serve me very targeted ads. It’s a system we all should be familiar with by now, as it’s fairly standard across most “free” online services. 

What am I getting in exchange for the data Twitter collects?

Personally, I get a quick insight into what other people — and groups of people — are thinking, in exchange for my data. I use Twitter as a quick break when I’m working or when I’m zoning out watching TV. I also use it for work, tuning in to what the cybersecurity industry is most interested in at any given moment, and reaching out to potential sources. 

On a broader scale, Twitter has been instrumental in major political movements worldwide, including the Arab Spring, which brought revolutions to the Middle East, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the #MeToo movement. It’s also home to many, many “bot” accounts and has struggled to combat misinformation in recent years, both in political movements and with the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a messy, complicated, interesting, and weird social media platform that has a culture all its own, even across communities that are physically spread around the world. 

Should I care that Twitter is collecting my data?

Twitter likes to suck up a lot of data — that’s a fact. But they also let users control a good amount of the data they collect: Check out my previous Privacy Refresh for Twitter for step-by-step instructions on how to limit the information that Twitter knows about you. 

For me, as long as all of the limits on Twitter’s data collection are implemented, the tradeoff for my data is worth it. Twitter provides me with both resources for work and the occasional entertainment and amusement. (Nothing makes me laugh more than when #BlackTwitter drags someone. See the controversy over how often Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher don’t bathe their children as an excellent example.) 

But, as usual, your preferences may be different than mine. That’s the point of this whole series, right? We all need to decide how much we’re willing to give away — and why.

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