The Numbers Game

As reported by the BBC, The American Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently fined Twitter $150 million for selling user data. So what. Big Tech gets fined every week for selling personal information, right? Even I was a bit numb to the news when I read the notice. However, it turns out this was not your garden variety user data breach. 

The worst of the worst

Back in 2013, Twitter began asking users for a secondary means of identification – a telephone number or an email address to better secure their accounts. Twitter was evolving from single factor authentication (username & password), to two factor authentication (username & password & telephone number or email address). If something suspicious occurred within your account, Twitter could send a text or email to you requesting additional approval for login.  

Most users were pleased that Twitter heightened security and shared their additional information without a second thought. Turns out they should have been suspicious because Twitter used the new data to increase the targeting accuracy of their algorithms. Even worse, they often sold the additional personal information to advertisers!

Pay the fine or do the time

Twitter’s main crime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, was that they intentionally mislead users into thinking the additional data was for security purposes only, not the typical, data-based, ad-cash land grab. Misleading users and selling data to advertisers is just one of the cat and mouse games social media companies play with the DoJ, but this time Twitter got caught.

Twitter has been in the spotlight recently due to the never ending Elon Musk purchase saga. Part of the reason Musk is mulling a takeover is because he thinks Twitter has not fully realized its potential as an ad-based social network, a la Facebook. 

Increasing revenue by selling more user data seems to be the primary way social media companies make more money, and that should scare all of us. Despite what they proclaim, these platforms are not about free speech. They care only about an ever-greater ROI for investors by selling – you! Social Media companies are constantly walking the tightrope between what’s ethically and morally right, and what they can get away with. Twitter’s fine is well-deserved.

For years Twitter has managed to evade most of the fines and fury directed at social media platforms like Facebook and TikTok. However, now that Musk might add his star power to the mix, Twitter can count on more publicity, more revenue, more scrutiny which hopefully leads to more fines.

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