With around 340 million active monthly users across the world, Twitter is a huge social network and communication tool. Right now, millions of people are sharing their thoughts, photos and emotions – along with information about their location, age, gender, and consumer preferences.

All of that information has value. We live in the age of Big Data, and when companies have so much information passing through their servers, it’s now possible to monetize it big-time. Twitter’s annual advertising revenue is just over $500 million, and most of that comes from selling targeted ad space.

However, many of us won’t be comfortable about having their data used to help advertisers sell their products. And it’s a real concern. But before looking at ways to counteract the Twitter data gathering procedures, let’s find out more about exactly what they gather, and how they use it.

What do we know about the Twitter data policy?

Twitter have never really hidden their desire to monetize the data of their users. For instance, in 2015 it was reported that the site had put trillions of tweets up for sale. And they also purchased a data analytics company called Gnip to make massive amounts of data useful for advertisers.

Fast forward three years, and things have moved on. Now, Twitter data personalization is where the action is. In May 2018, the social media giant rolled out a new privacy policy which formalizes their personalization systems.

When users agree to be bound by the new Twitter privacy policy, they willingly surrender everything they publish on the platform (aside from direct messages, which remain protected). Twitter then uses this data to deliver targeted adverts which are, in theory, relevant to the interests of the user.

If you use the site regularly, you might argue with the accuracy of their alorithms, but there’s no arguing about the depth of Twitter data personalization. You can get a feel for this on your Twitter profile, where you’ll find a page listing your interests – even if you haven’t informed Twitter about any of them. Just sifting through the data on your timeline provides everything the company needs to create a data profile.

Twitter has invested heavily in ways to translate tweets into cashflow. Effectively, the site has become a perpetual surveillance tool, monitoring what each individual says, who they interact with, and what brands they mention.

How to find out what Twitter knows about your private information?

All of this sounds pretty abstract, so let’s bring things down to ground level for a moment. What kind of private information does Twitter know about you? How well do they know what goes on in your everyday life and, in an even creepier sense, what happens inside your mind?

The easiest way to find out what Twitter knows is to head to your profile. Here’s a brief checklist of what Twitter knows about you:

    • Interests On your profile page, you can call up a list of “interests” derived from your history on the site. It’s all here, from sports you follow to specific celebrities or politicians (you don’t have to follow them or their fans). This is basic stuff, though, and just the tip of the iceberg as far as Twitter’s data collection goes.
    • Tailored Audiences Another setting on your profile relates to “Tailored Audiences” – which is where Twitter puts you when it sells your data to advertisers. You can download a copy of those audiences, and most people will be in well over 100. Some of these are incredibly specific (such as German Shepherd dog owners), giving a glimpse into exactly how well Twitter knows your life.
    • Your Devices Whenever you log onto Twitter, the social network logs the type of device you are using and its IP address. This allows them to know your location to a reasonable degree of accuracy, as well as the organization you are logging on from (such as a school or business). This is how they are able to track your location to an astonishing degree of precision. If you don’t believe this, check your privacy settings and toggle the “Place you’ve been” option. Wherever you go will be listed here.
    • Your App History Another insidious aspect of Twitter’s data policy is the way it tracks the apps you have on your phone. They know about any app that has “access” to your Twitter account, including Facebook and Instagram. This doesn’t just inform Twitter about your digital preferences, it allows those apps to access your tweets for their own purposes – a double invasion of privacy.
    • Your Contacts In many cases, Twitter will automatically upload contacts from linked apps and email accounts. Superficially, they intend to use this data to help users build their Twitter networks, but it’s also a powerful data gathering tool to find out networks of potential customers and groups with similar interests.

What you have learned so far

As you can see, that’s quite a lot of information already. However, the list above is mainly derived from Twitter’s privacy settings dashboard, which offers ways to control how the site uses your data, and it might not be the whole story.

It gives us a snapshot of how Twitter presents data personalization to users, but tells us nothing about how third party companies uses data from Twitter users. And Twitter almost certainly uses anonymized data from their site which, while it may have our fingerprints removed, is still our data.

Given all of that, the pressing question for many people will be how to ensure their privacy and security online when using Twitter. So how can you continue to interact with friends and follow your favorite accounts without worrying about your data falling into the wrong hands?

How to make it harder for Twitter to store your personal data

Actually, Twitter users have a few different options to safeguard their data. Some are part of Twitter’s own interface, while others require a bit more work. But if you’re serious about protecting your data it’s important to use them all.

      • Opt Out – When the Twitter privacy policy changed in May 2018, the European Union passed a regulation called GDPR which sought to make it much easier to delete personal data. Twitter’s new policy anticipated GDPR, providing ways for users to opt out of (visible) data collection. On your privacy settings pages, you can opt out of location tracking, connected devices, and connected apps, as well as data collection for advertising. So it’s advisable to do so.
      • Always Log Out – If you use Twitter on a smartphone, the site may track your activity on connected apps even when you don’t think you are logged in. Yo make sure this doesn’t happen, double check that you have logged out of Twitter after checking your account. Don’t just close it and move onto another app or website.
      • Use a Virtual Private Network – Using a VPN is a reliable way to hide your identity from Twitter’s data gathering bots. In fact, it’s probably the only ironclad way to ensure anonymity when tweeting. With a good VPN installed, your IP address will be scrambled, hiding your location and the nature of your device. And everything you send will be encrypted, adding another layer of protection.

These measures are almost certainly sufficient to reduce Twitter’s data gathering to a minimum. At best, the network will be able to track who your account is communicating with, but linking it to your identity will be tough. Incidentally, this is also why using a VPN is so useful if you intend to tweet about controversial political issues, especially in repressive countries.

If you intend to lock down your Twitter account, make sure you use the opt outs and a VPN together, and tighten up your smartphone security practices. In general, if you want to ensure security online, it’s a good idea to reduce “connected apps” to a minimum, as almost all of them will have data gathering operations.

When all of these techniques are brought together, you should be guarded against excessive Twitter data collection methods, restoring peace of mind as you connect with friends and share the latest memes.

If you would decide to delete your Twitter account, read this guide.