WASHINGTON – Twitter executives deceived federal regulators and the company’s own board of directors about “extreme, egregious deficiencies” in its defenses against hackers, as well as its meager efforts to fight spam, according to an explosive whistleblower complaint from its former security chief.
The complaint from former head of security Peiter Zatko, a widely admired hacker known as “Mudge,” depicts Twitter as a chaotic and rudderless company beset by infighting, unable to properly protect its 238 million daily users including government agencies, heads of state and other influential public figures.
Among the most serious accusations in the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, is that Twitter violated the terms of an 11-year-old settlement with the Federal Trade Commission by falsely claiming that it had a solid security plan. Zatko’s complaint alleges he had warned colleagues that half the company’s servers were running out-of-date and vulnerable software and that executives withheld dire facts about the number of breaches and lack of protection for user data, instead presenting directors with rosy charts measuring unimportant changes.
The complaint – filed last month with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice, as well as the FTC – says thousands of employees still had wide-ranging and poorly tracked internal access to core company software, a situation that for years had led to embarrassing hacks, including the commandeering of accounts held by such high-profile users as Elon Musk and former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
In addition, the whistleblower document alleges the company prioritized user growth over reducing spam, though unwanted content made the user experience worse. Executives stood to win individual bonuses of as much as $10 million tied to increases in daily users, the complaint asserts, and nothing explicitly for cutting spam.
Chief Executive Parag Agrawal was “lying” when he tweeted in May that the company was “strongly incentivized to detect and remove as much spam as we possibly can,” the complaint alleges.
In an interview with The Post, Zatko described his decision to go public as an extension of his previous work exposing flaws in specific pieces of software and broader systemic failings in cybersecurity. He was hired at Twitter by former CEO Jack Dorsey in late 2020 after a major hack of the company’s systems.
“I felt ethically bound. This is not a light step to take,” said Zatko, who was fired by Agrawal in January. He declined to discuss what happened at Twitter, except to stand by the formal complaint. Under SEC whistleblower rules, he is entitled to legal protection against retaliation, as well as potential monetary rewards.
A redacted version of the 84-page filing went to congressional committees. The Post obtained a copy of the disclosure from a senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill. Zatko is represented by the nonprofit law firm Whistleblower Aid. The FTC is reviewing the allegations, according to two people familiar with the preliminary inquiry. The Post interviewed more than a dozen current and former employees for this story, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
“Security and privacy have long been top companywide priorities at Twitter,” said Twitter spokeswoman Rebecca Hahn. She said that Zatko’s allegations appeared to be “riddled with inaccuracies” and that Zatko “now appears to be opportunistically seeking to inflict harm on Twitter, its customers, and its shareholders.” Hahn said that Twitter fired Zatko after 15 months “for poor performance and leadership.”
Hahn added that Twitter has tightened up security extensively since 2020, that its security practices are within industry standards, and that it has specific rules about who can access company systems.
Regarding the allegations about spam and bots, Hahn said Twitter removes more than a million spam accounts every day, adding up to more than 300 million per year. Twitter pointed to its proxy statements noting that growing daily users is the smallest of three factors for earning cash bonuses, along with growing revenue and another financial goal.
Hahn said that Twitter “fully stands by” its SEC filings and approach to fighting spam.
A person familiar with Zatko’s tenure said the company investigated Zatko’s security claims during his time there and concluded they were sensationalistic and without merit. Four people familiar with Twitter’s efforts to fight spam said the company deploys extensive manual and automated tools to both measure the extent of spam across the service and reduce it.
The SEC, DOJ and FTC declined to comment.
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The complaint has potential implications for Twitter’s legal battle with Musk, who is trying to get out of a $44 billion contract to buy the social media platform. The deal includes a pledge by Twitter that its shareholder filings are accurate. But Musk contends that Twitter has drastically underestimated the number of bots on its platform, a violation that should allow him to walk away without penalty. The dispute is set to go to trial in Delaware Chancery Court in October.
Overall, Zatko wrote in a February analysis for the company attached as an exhibit to the SEC complaint, “Twitter is grossly negligent in several areas of information security. If these problems are not corrected, regulators, media and users of the platform will be shocked when they inevitably learn about Twitter’s severe lack of security basics.”
Zatko’s complaint says strong security should have been much more important to Twitter, which holds vast amounts of sensitive personal data about users. Twitter has the email addresses and phone numbers of many public figures, as well as dissidents who communicate over the service at great personal risk.
This month, an ex-Twitter employee was convicted of using his position at the company to spy on Saudi dissidents and government critics, passing their information to a close aide of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in exchange for cash and gifts.
Zatko’s complaint says he believed the Indian government had forced Twitter to put one of its agents on the payroll, with access to user data at a time of intense protests in the country. The complaint said supporting information for that claim has gone to the National Security Division of the Justice Department and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Another person familiar with the matter agreed that the employee was probably an agent.
Senate Intelligence Committee spokeswoman Rachel Cohen said the committee is trying to set up a meeting with Zatko to discuss the complaint in detail.
“Take a tech platform that collects massive amounts of user data, combine it with what appears to be an incredibly weak security infrastructure and infuse it with foreign state actors with an agenda, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster,” Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. His office has had discussions with Zatko about the allegations. “The claims I’ve received from a Twitter whistleblower raise serious national security concerns as well as privacy issues, and they must be investigated further.”
Many government leaders and other trusted voices use Twitter to spread important messages quickly, so a hijacked account could drive panic or violence. In 2013, a captured Associated Press handle falsely tweeted about explosions at the White House, sending the Dow Jones industrial average briefly plunging more than 140 points.
After a teenager managed to hijack the verified accounts of Obama, then-candidate Joe Biden, Musk and others in 2020, Twitter’s chief executive at the time, Jack Dorsey, asked Zatko to join him, saying that he could help the world by fixing Twitter’s security and improving the public conversation, Zatko asserts in the complaint.
Like many in technology, Dorsey had admired the hacker’s history as a trailblazer, according to three people familiar with his remarks on the matter. He did not respond to requests for comment. In 1998, Zatko had testified to Congress that the internet was so fragile that he and others could take it down with a half-hour of concentrated effort. He later served as the head of cyber grants at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon innovation unit that had backed the internet’s invention.
But at Twitter Zatko encountered problems more widespread than he realized and leadership that didn’t act on his concerns, according to the complaint.
Twitter’s difficulties with weak security stretches back more than a decade before Zatko’s arrival at the company in November 2020. In a pair of 2009 incidents, hackers gained administrative control of the social network, allowing them to reset passwords and access user data. In the first, beginning around January of that year, hackers sent tweets from the accounts of high-profile users, including Fox News and Obama.
Several months later, a hacker was able to guess an employee’s administrative password after gaining access to similar passwords in their personal email account. That hacker was able to reset at least one user’s password and obtain private information about any Twitter user.
The FTC investigated and sued Twitter in a case that led to one of the first big privacy consent orders with a tech company. In a 2011 settlement, Twitter agreed to implement, monitor and adjust security safeguards to protect users.
Yet Twitter continued to suffer high-profile hacks and security violations, including in 2018, when a contract worker briefly took over Trump’s account, and in the 2020 hack, in which a Florida teen tricked Twitter employees and won access to verified accounts. Twitter then said it put additional safeguards in place.
A former FTC official who worked on the case said the agency was badly understaffed at the time, and that the enforcement division had failed to keep a close eye on multiple companies after reaching privacy settlements, including the one with Twitter.
This year, the Justice Department accused Twitter of asking users for their phone numbers in the name of increased security, then using the numbers for marketing. Twitter agreed to pay a $150 million fine for allegedly breaking the 2011 order, which barred the company from making misrepresentations about the security of personal data.
The Whistleblower Aid complaint includes allegations that suggest that Twitter’s security practices were even worse than regulators knew.
After Zatko joined the company, he found it had made little progress since the 2011 settlement, the complaint says. The complaint alleges that he was able to reduce the backlog of safety cases, including harassment and threats, from 1 million to 200,000, add staff and push to measure results.
But Zatko saw major gaps in what the company was doing to satisfy its obligations to the FTC, according to the complaint. In Zatko’s interpretation, according to the complaint, the 2011 order required Twitter to implement a Software Development Life Cycle program, a standard process for making sure new code is free of dangerous bugs. The complaint alleges that other employees had been telling the board and the FTC that they were making progress in rolling out that program to Twitter’s systems. But Zatko alleges that he discovered that it had been sent to only a tenth of the company’s projects, and even then treated as optional.
If Zatko’s allegations are proven, the company could face substantial penalties – potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars – said David C. Vladeck, who was director of the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection at the time of the settlement.
“If all of that is true, I don’t think there’s any doubt that there are order violations,” Vladeck, who is now a Georgetown Law professor, said in an interview. “It is possible that the kinds of problems that Twitter faced eleven years ago are still running through the company.”
The complaint also alleges that Zatko warned the board early in his tenure that overlapping outages in the company’s data centers could leave it unable to correctly restart its servers. That could have left the service down for months, or even have caused all of its data to be lost. That came close to happening in 2021, when an “impending catastrophic” crisis threatened the platform’s survival before engineers were able to save the day, the complaint says, without providing further details.
One current and one former employee recalled that incident, when failures at two Twitter data centers drove concerns that the service could have collapsed for an extended period. “I wondered if the company would exist in a few days,” one of them said.
The current and former employees also agreed with the complaint’s assertion that past reports to various privacy regulators were “misleading at best.”
For example, they said the company implied that it had destroyed all data on users who asked, but the material had spread so widely inside Twitter’s networks, it was impossible to know for sure. The current employee said Twitter had just completed a project, known as Project Eraser, that would ensure the deletion of such data. A person familiar with the matter, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of legal issues, said that Twitter had only said the accounts were deactivated and had improved its ability to find and delete the data.
As the head of security, Zatko says he also was in charge of a division that investigated users’ complaints about accounts, which meant that he oversaw the removal of some bots, according to the complaint. Spam bots – computer programs that tweet automatically – have long vexed Twitter. Unlike its social media counterparts, Twitter allows users to program bots to be used on its service: For example, the Twitter account @big_ben_clock is programmed to tweet “Bong Bong Bong” every hour in time with Big Ben in London. Twitter also allows people to create accounts without using their real identities, making it harder for the company to distinguish between authentic, duplicate and automated accounts.
Wall Street has pressed Twitter about bots because the company historically included some automated accounts in its quarterly estimate of daily users – even though those accounts don’t see ads and therefore Twitter can’t earn money off them. In 2019, the company changed how it calculated such numbers to focus on those who can view and potentially click on ads. In every quarterly SEC filing since, Twitter has estimated that fewer than 5% of the monetizable daily users are spam and bots.
In the complaint, Zatko alleges he could not get a straight answer when he sought what he viewed as an important data point: the prevalence of spam and bots across all of Twitter, not just among monetizable users.
Zatko cites a “sensitive source” who said Twitter was afraid to determine that number because it “would harm the image and valuation of the company.” He says the company’s tools for detecting spam are far less robust than implied in various statements.
“Agrawal’s Tweets and Twitter’s previous blog posts misleadingly imply that Twitter employs proactive, sophisticated systems to measure and block spam bots,” the complaint says. “The reality: mostly outdated, unmonitored, simple scripts plus overworked, inefficient, understaffed, and reactive human teams.”
The four people familiar with Twitter’s spam and bot efforts said the engineering and integrity teams run software that samples thousands of tweets per day, and 100 accounts are sampled manually.
Some employees charged with executing the fight agreed that they had been short of staff. One said top executives showed “apathy” toward the issue.
Zatko’s complaint likewise depicts leadership dysfunction, starting with the CEO. Dorsey was largely absent during the pandemic, which made it hard for Zatko to get rulings on who should be in charge of what in areas of overlap and easier for rival executives to avoid collaborating, three current and former employees said.
For example, Zatko would encounter disinformation as part of his mandate to handle complaints, according to the complaint. To that end, he commissioned an outside report that found one of the disinformation teams had unfilled positions, yawning language deficiencies, and a lack of technical tools or the engineers to craft them. The authors said Twitter had no effective means of dealing with consistent spreaders of falsehoods.
Dorsey made little effort to integrate Zatko at the company, according to the three employees as well two others familiar with the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive dynamics. In 12 months, Zatko could manage only six one-on-one calls, all less than 30 minutes, with his direct boss Dorsey, who also served as CEO of payments company Square, now known as Block, according to the complaint. Zatko allegedly did almost all of the talking, and Dorsey said perhaps 50 words in the entire year to him. “A couple dozen text messages” rounded out their electronic communication, the complaint alleges.
Faced with such inertia, Zatko asserts that he was unable to solve some of the most serious issues, according to the complaint.
Some 30% of company laptops blocked automatic software updates carrying security fixes, and thousands of laptops had complete copies of Twitter’s source code, making them a rich target for hackers, it alleges. A successful hacker takeover of one of those machines would have been able to sabotage the product with relative ease, because the engineers pushed out changes without being forced to test them first in a simulated environment, current and former employees said. A person familiar with the matter said Twitter had adequate defenses.
“It’s near-incredible that for something of that scale there would not be a development test environment separate from production and there would not be a more controlled source-code management process,” said Tony Sager, former chief operating officer at the cyberdefense wing of the National Security Agency, the Information Assurance Division. “Almost any attack scenario is fair game and probably easily executed.” Sager is currently senior vice president at the nonprofit Center for Internet Security, where he leads a consensus effort to establish best security practices.
The complaint says that about half of Twitter’s roughly 7,000 full-time employees had wide access to the company’s internal software and that access was not closely monitored, giving them the ability to tap into sensitive data and alter how the service worked. Three current and former employees agreed that these were issues.
“A best practice is that you should only be authorized to see and access what you need to do your job, and nothing else,” said former U.S. Chief Information Security Officer Gregory Touhill. “If half the company has access to and can make configuration changes to the production environment, that exposes the company and its customers to significant risk.”
The complaint says Dorsey never encouraged anyone to mislead the board about the shortcomings, but that others deliberately left out bad news.
When Dorsey left in November 2021, a difficult situation worsened under Agarwal, who had been responsible for security decisions as chief technology officer before Zatko’s hiring, the complaint says.
An unnamed executive had prepared a presentation for the new CEO’s first full board meeting, according to the complaint. Zatko’s complaint calls the presentation deeply misleading.
The presentation showed that 92% of employee computers had security software installed – without mentioning that those installations determined that a third of the machines were insecure, according to the complaint.
Another graphic implied a downward trend in the number of people with overly broad access, based on the small subset of people who had access to the highest administrative powers, known internally as “God mode.” That number was in the hundreds. But the number of people with broad access to core systems, which Zatko had called out as a big problem after joining, had actually grown slightly and remained in the thousands.
The presentation included only a subset of serious intrusions or other security incidents, from a total Zatko estimated as one per week, and it said that the uncontrolled internal access to core systems was responsible for just 7% of incidents, when Zatko calculated the real proportion as 60%.
Zatko stopped the material from being presented at the Dec. 9, 2021 meeting, the complaint said. But over his continued objections, Agrawal let it go to the board’s smaller Risk Committee a week later.
Agrawal didn’t respond to requests for comment.
On Jan. 4, Zatko reported internally that the Risk Committee meeting might have been fraudulent, which triggered an Audit Committee investigation.
Agarwal fired him two weeks later. But Zatko complied with the company’s request to spell out his concerns in writing, even without access to his work email and documents, according to the complaint.
Since Zatko’s departure, Twitter has plunged further into chaos with Musk’s takeover, which the two parties agreed to in May. The stock price has fallen, many employees have quit, and Agrawal has dismissed executives and frozen big projects.
Zatko said he hoped that by bringing new scrutiny and accountability, he could improve the company from the outside.
“I still believe that this is a tremendous platform, and there is huge value and huge risk, and I hope that looking back at this, the world will be a better place, in part because of this.”