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Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover: What that means for your personal data

Click to play video: 'Elon Musk takes over Twitter amid mixed reactions from politicians, the public'
Elon Musk takes over Twitter amid mixed reactions from politicians, the public
WATCH: Elon Musk takes over Twitter amid mixed reactions from politicians, the public – Oct 28, 2022

After a long-drawn legal battle and months of uncertainty, Elon Musk has finally taken over Twitter. And, while Musk’s Twitter acquisition is not the biggest privacy risk right now, some experts are concerned about how the platform’s algorithm might change — controlling the kind of content we see.

“The threat is not so much about the amount of data being collected, but the way…information is going to be structured,” Marion de Castelbajac, a data privacy consultant, told Global News.

“It’s a big deal that one major player who has a very specific agenda for humanity is getting a hold of a platform that is the number one for political discussions,” said Castelbajac.

“People are afraid of the way the algorithm will evolve and how it will sell Musk’s interests,” she added, noting that there is still a lot of uncertainty around Musk’s plans for Twitter.

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According to a blog on its website, the platform’s algorithm works around “a stream of Tweets from accounts you have chosen to follow on Twitter, as well as recommendations of other content that we think you might be interested in based on accounts you interact with frequently, Tweets you engage with, and more.”

According to Castelbajac, if Musk changes the algorithm, that might relax content-moderation rules that offer some protection against white supremacy, hate speech, and threats of violence.

Musk, a tech guru and self-proclaimed “Chief Twit” has often made contradictory statements about his vision for the company.

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Elon Musk’s Twitter offer ‘huge victory’ for company’s board: Analyst

He has described himself as a “free speech absolutist” and has made clear that he doesn’t think Twitter is living up to free speech principles — an opinion shared by followers of Donald Trump and several right-wing political figures who’ve had their accounts suspended for violating Twitter content rules.

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But what’s really driving Musk’s Twitter involvement isn’t clear. His preoccupations with the service include arguing to make Twitter’s algorithm viewable by the public and widening the availability of “verified” Twitter accounts.

Data privacy

When it comes to data privacy, Castelbajac says, “things are already so bad that they can’t get much worse in terms of data that will be handled, accessed, collected, and gathered”– a sentiment that’s also shared by Florian Kerschbaum, a professor in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo.

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Kerschbaum argues that fundamentally — whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Google Mail, or another platform — it makes no difference in terms of privacy threats.

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“All of these systems are designed to collect as much data as feasible…For example, we built the cloud essentially as a mechanism to spy on people,” said Kerschbaum.

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“And this mechanism is being used by not only the companies but just as much by the intelligence services and other government agencies…Elon Musk is a small player in this game.”

He said that the fear around Musk taking over Twitter is “completely irrational” and that more concern needs to be given to all the data being collected by intelligence agencies to spy on people.

“That is the much bigger problem,” said Florian. The only risk, he said, is the way Twitter under Musk will be shaping opinion.

'A wake-up call'

Whether people stick with Twitter or not, Courtney Radsch feels the sale of Twitter should be seen as a lesson.

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A senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a think tank focused on technology and international governance, Radsch said, “It’s a wake-up call for people to think about how much time and energy and intellectual capital do you want to invest in a single platform when it can be so disturbing?”

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Twitter has a reputation for hosting hateful posts and many users have complained about facing harassment and bots on the platform.

While Musk has mused about defeating spam bots and making algorithms open-sourced to increase trust, Radsch told The Canadian Press that many of these ideas remain uncertain, suggesting that it’s an important reminder that a new leader can make radical changes to a social network.

“People have spent a lot of time on this platform, creating their brands or developing their presence,” she said. “We still have to see what his policies are going to result in… but I think that you could potentially see some people go off out of protest.”

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Radsch doesn’t think a critical mass will leave because there are no other platforms that operate the same way or offer a similar experience, but she hopes many that do depart will realize how important data portability is.

Twitter users can download their data, but their networks and posted material can’t easily be transferred to other platforms.

“But I think this type of angst (around Twitter) that is felt by many users, illustrates why that’s such an important policy that needs to be developed sooner rather than later,” Radsch said.

Like others, Radsch also stressed on the lack of privacy on other platforms.

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Radsch said, for example, that some users may be worried that Musk has the power to read anyone’s direct messages.

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While she maintained that she doesn’t think “anyone has enough time to go through and read everyone’s direct messages,” Radsch cautioned that “without privacy protections… you should not expect that these platforms are there to maintain your security.”

Such concerns have loomed since Twitter’s board accepted Musk’s US$44-billion bid to take over the social media platform in May.

The controversial Tesla and SpaceX leader, who has Canadian citizenship, had also tried to back out of the deal.

However, after the takeover, Musk changed his Twitter bio to “chief twit” and was seen walking into the tech giant’s San Francisco headquarters right before the deal with a porcelain sink after posting “Entering Twitter HQ– let that sink in.”

His first act was reportedly firing three top Twitter executives– chief executive Parag Agrawal, the company’s chief financial officer, and its top lawyer.

— with files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press

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