This week Twitter announced a new version of its "Who to Follow" feature, making it a far more personal recommendation engine. The way it works, however, is that if you're logged into Twitter in the web browser, any site that calls Twitter code -- like a Tweet or Follow button -- can report your presence on that site back to Twitter. Gadget sites. Car sites. Movie sites. Porn sites. Gaming sites. Any. Site.
We determine the people you might enjoy following based on your recent visits to websites in the Twitter ecosystem (sites that have integrated Twitter buttons or widgets). Specifically, our feature works by suggesting people who are frequently followed by other Twitter users that visit the same websites.
The cause for concern here is that it looks like it's opt-out, and not opt-in for existing Twitter users. New Twitter users will be asked on signup, but existing users have to a) know about it, and b) find it and shut it off if they don't like it.
Giving existing users a popup or overlay advising them of it would even that out. (Twitter is sending emails that include some of this and other information, but that's not as effective as a specific modal request, with the default state being off and not on.)
If you trust Twitter and would value more personalized "Who to Follow" recommendations, then you may not care. If you don't trust any big internet company, aren't interested in social recommendations, and basically think your personal information is too high a price to pay for any free internet service, then you have some options.
If you rarely if ever use Twitter via the website, one way to prevent Twitter from collecting your data is to simply make sure you're logged out of Twitter.com.
Sadly, this method can't seem to be done via the iPhone-optimized mobile Twitter webapp,so you'll have to break out the full, desktop browser version of Twitter.com.
Twitter supports "Do Not Track", a system that users can opt into that prevents web services from following their browsing habits. Again, it would be better to have users opt into "Allow Track" than making them figure out how to opt out via "Do Not Track" but this is currently the hand privacy is dealt.
Unfortunately, not all browsers support "Do Not Track" directly yet, including Mobile Safari on iOS. For desktop Safari 5.1 or later:
For information on how to enable "Do Not Track" in other browsers, when and if possible, check out Twitter's knowledge base article.
Here's the gist:
The United States Federal Trade Commission has endorsed DNT as a simple way for users to inform integrated web services which offer content across the Internet (such as buttons, widgets, and other embedded features) that they do not want certain information about their webpage visits collected across websites when they have not interacted with that service's content on the page.
The DNT browser setting is now supported by recent versions of major browsers, including Firefox 5+, Internet Explorer 9+, and Safari 5.1+. If you are using Chrome 17.0 or higher, there is a third-party extension that enables DNT.
iPhone users are massive Twitter users and vice versa. If any social network was made for mobile, it was and is Twitter. Because Twitter is so mobile, and because it defaults to making most things public (unless you deliberately make your account private or send a DM), Twitter has managed to avoid a lot of the privacy blunders Facebook and Google had experienced. Until this week.
Security and privacy are always going to be at odds with convenience. It's faster and easier for social networks to simply turn things on, and it's more powerful and feature-fancy for users to let them.
The price is our personal information.
There are arguments on more than two sides about the importance of this, but at the end of he day there are millions if not billions of dollars at stake for the networks and the details of personal and private lives at stake for users. So it's worth arguing about. A lot.
In this specific case, if you're okay with Twitter offering you recommendations based on your browsing habits, leave it on and enjoy. If not, turn it off and rest easy.