Twitter Discovers Bug Which Left Protected Tweets Exposed for Android Users

We’ve become more accustomed to Facebook being the focus of such problems, but this week, Twitter revealed that it’s detected an issue which disabled the ‘Protected tweets’ setting for many Android users – for the last five years.

As explained by Twitter:

“We’ve become aware of an issue in Twitter for Android which disabled the “Protect your Tweets” setting if certain account changes were made. You may have been impacted by this issue if you had protected Tweets turned on in your settings, used Twitter for Android, and made certain changes to account settings such as changing the email address associated with your account between November 3, 2014, and January 14, 2019. We fixed the issue on January 14, and we’ll provide updates if other important information becomes available.”

That’s a fairly significant window of impact – as a reminder, users who’ve chosen to protect their tweets have essentially chosen to hide them from public view, making them only visible to their followers. One of the key concerns here is that many people switch on this setting because they’re victims of harassment, or they want to keep certain people from seeing what they tweet about. For the last five years, the users affected would have been tweeting under the guise that this was the case, that they could tweet without concern of anyone seeing what they had to say, other than those of their choosing.

The flow-on damage caused by that could be huge – and while Twitter hasn’t provided a specific listing of the number of affected users, the Twitter app has been downloaded almost a billion times in the Google Play store. Of course, Twitter only has 326 million total monthly active users, and a fraction of them would have switched on ‘Protected tweets’. But still, the scope of this issue could be major. And what’s worse – Twitter says that it’s unable to confirm every account which may have been impacted by the issue.  

What Twitter has done is that it’s informed users that it knows were affected, and it’s turned “Protect your Tweets” back on for them. So there’s that. Seems pretty minor in the broader scheme.

This also comes on the back of a Huffington Post interview with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, entitled “Jack Dorsey Has No Clue What He Wants”, in which Dorsey seemed to struggle to articulate how the platform is moving forward, and what they’re doing to address specific issues. Dorsey, for his part, says that the interview was about being open, and showing that he, and those managing the platform, are human. But it didn’t exactly portray his capacity to lead a multi-billion company in the best light.

All around, it wasn’t the best few days for the social media giant. 

As noted, in recent times, it’s normally been Facebook coming under this type of scrutiny, with The Social Network identifying four separate bugs over the last year which, potentially, exposed private data from millions of accounts. That, as well as the ongoing use of the platform by politically-motivated groups, has lead to questions over whether Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is able to handle the responsibility of operating the largest social media platform in the world, and whether additional regulations should be put in place to better police potential misuse. No over-arching action has been implemented no such as yet, aside from (arguably) the GDPR. But cases like this only add to the larger concern, and the push to better protect users and their information.

Twitter’s issue seems comparatively smaller than some of Facebook’s problems – but still, given the exposure of what users believed to be private information, the impacts could be just as significant. How do you measure the potential damage caused by having what you thought was private shared out in the open? Did people lose professional opportunities because of this? Relationship breakdowns? How can such harm be calculated?  

Given this, it seems likely that we haven’t seen the last of this issue as yet. And really, it shouldn’t just be swept under the carpet – this is a blatant, years-long failing on Twitter’s behalf, undermining user trust. Technical issues can and will happen, that’s always that risk. But if you ever wanted a case to use as a precedent as to why social networks should not be trusted with private information, this may well be it.  

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