Continued Developments from Twitter Whistleblower’s Disclosures

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Peiter Zatko, former head of security at Twitter, filed whistleblower complaints with three federal agencies. The news of his disclosures, first reported by The Washington Post and CNN, have made waves this week in the media. This article breaks down some of the top developments since Zatko’s whistleblower allegations became public.

The Allegations

Zatko, also known by the nickname “Mudge,” worked at Twitter as its head of security from November 2020 until January 2022. He filed whistleblower complaints with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and Department of Justice (DOJ) in July 2022.

In the complaint, Zatko alleges that “the corporation, CEO Parag Agrawal, particular senior executives, and members of its Board of Directors, since 2011 and on an ongoing basis, have engaged in… extensive, repeated, uninterrupted violations of the Federal Trade Commission Act by making false and misleading statements to users and the FTC about, inter alia, the Twitter’s platform’s security, privacy, and integrity,” according to WNN reporting.

He also alleges that the social media company engaged in “violations of SEC rules governing public companies including, inter alia, auditing requirements,” as well as “fraudulent and material misrepresentations in communications with the Board of Directors and investors, constituting securities violations.” His complaints contained allegations that higher-ups at Twitter, including CEO Parag Agrawal, engaged in “deliberate efforts to mislead” about the company’s security issues. Read more about Zatko’s allegations and reactions from members of Congress in this WNN article.

Increase in Twitter Employee Attrition

An August 24 article from Reuters reported that at a staff meeting held a day after Zatko’s allegations were published, Twitter executives said that “employee attrition is currently at 18.3%. “Before Musk made his $44 billion offer to buy the company, attrition hovered between 14% and 16%, which was consistent with competitors, executives had previously said,” the article reports.

According to Reuters, Twitter employees “submitted questions to company leaders on whether Twitter would hire or promote more junior staff members and how Twitter could be expected to hit its growth targets given the employee exodus.” Agrawal said that “The only way for us to deliver is by narrowing our focus to fewer things and for that to be proportionate to number of people here.”

Hearing on the Hill

The Senate Judiciary Committee announced on August 24 that it will hold a full committee hearing on September 13 at 10am. The hearing will “investigate allegations of widespread security failures at Twitter and foreign state actor interference” and “will feature testimony by Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, who will appear pursuant to a subpoena and whose recent disclosure alleges serious privacy and security failures by the company,” according to a follow-up tweet.

How the Whistleblower Allegations Affect Musk’s Lawsuit

Another issue central to Zatko’s disclosures is bot accounts on Twitter’s platform: Zatko “alleges egregious security deficiencies and ineffective methods for counting bots,” a Washington Post article reports. The issue of bot accounts on the platform has been at issue in the lawsuits Elon Musk and Twitter are engaged in after Musk backed out of a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion.

According to the Post article, Musk tweeted in May that the deal to buy Twitter “was on hold pending a review of Twitter’s claims on spam and fake accounts…By July, Musk filed to terminate the deal over concerns relating to Twitter’s tallying of bot and spam profiles, which Musk alleges vastly underestimates the true number of inauthentic accounts. Twitter sued Musk alleging breach of contract days later. Musk filed a countersuit in late July.”

Musk’s lawyers talked about Zatko’s whistleblower complaint during an August 24 hearing “which was scheduled for the attorneys to request more information on Twitter’s data on spam and bots.” According to the article, “Twitter’s attorneys…stood their ground on the data requests, citing the sensitivity of the information.”

The Post reports that “[t]he judge adjourned the hearing without issuing a decision” and that “the trial is scheduled for October.” Read more about Musk’s lawyers citing Zatko’s whistleblower complaints here.

Facebook Whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang Provide Input

On August 25, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen tweeted about Zatko’s allegations. In early October 2021, Haugen, who formerly worked as a lead product manager on Facebook’s (now Meta) Civic Misinformation team, alleged that the company continuously prioritized profits over the safety of its users — especially children — and the stability of our democracy. Haugen tweets that “we should worry” about the allegations Zatko is making. “Many of Meta/Facebook’s problems came from running critical teams with skeleton crews. Twitter makes signficantly less revenue per user than Facebook does – it’s no surprise Twitter is struggling to follow even minimal security or system stability standards,” one tweet reads.

Haugen stresses the importance of having a “pipeline” into safety/integrity teams from higher education institutions and writes that “Big Tech companies struggle to staff their teams because they hide their data and systems from view and keep academia from building a ‘public muscle of accountability.’” She writes that Big Tech companies are being misleading when they say there aren’t enough people to hire to work on safety issues.

“Demanding transparency isn’t about punishing BigTech – it’s about giving them a chance to stop suffering alone. Big Tech has a first mover crisis today – if anyone acts first, they’ll be punished for their dirty laundry. BUT ALL THE BIG TECH COMPANIES HAVE DIRTY LAUNDRY,” another tweet in the thread reads. Haugen adds that this “dirty laundry can be a national security threat.”

Haugen warns that “Twitter will not be the last critical piece of public infrastructure outed as running with a dangerous skeleton crew. The sooner we lay the groundwork for building independent sources of truth about these systems – the sooner we can adequately staff the safety teams.”

Sophie Zhang is another Facebook whistleblower who wrote an internal exit memo in September 2020 that was reported on by BuzzFeed News. In her memo, she detailed what she found through her work on the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team. Zhang alleged that while she worked at Facebook, she found multiple instances of governments in other countries attempting to sway public opinion and mislead their citizens using fake accounts. Her memo claimed that Facebook had a delayed reaction to addressing the inauthentic activity, and in a July interview with WNN, Zhang described how she tried to make changes within the system before leaving the company.

Zhang acknowledged in an August 23 tweet that while she didn’t work for Twitter, she experienced difficulties at Facebook when she asked for a “takedown” of bots.

“On April 5 2019, I brought the case of JOH’s bots to FB policy leaders where I argued in vain for a takedown

Four days later, the Honduran government began a mass coverup. When I raised it, FB concluded it was ‘coincidental,’” Zhang’s tweet reads.

In the coming weeks, WNN will be following the Twitter whistleblower story – stay informed of breaking whistleblower news here.

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