Twitter’s former head of security Peiter “Mudge” Zatko alleges that the social network’s Spaces feature lacks proper moderation. Zatko made the claim in an explosive whistleblower complaint first obtained by CNN and The Washington Post.
In the complaint, Zatko says a Twitter executive incorrectly told staff and board members in December 2021 that the feature was being appropriately moderated. However, Zatko says he discovered that “about half of Spaces content flagged for review was in a language that the moderators did not speak, and there there was little to no moderation happening,” according to his whistleblower complaint dated July 6, which was filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Justice Department.
The whistleblower complaint notes that among other responsibilities, Zatko worked with Twitter Service, the company’s internal name for the division tasked with operational enforcement of global content moderation.
The complaint follows a report from The Washington Post published last year that said Twitter knew Spaces could be misused due to a lack of moderation. The report said employees who complained about the lack of moderation were sidelined by the company, as some questioned how the social network planned to make sure the offering didn’t turn into a platform for hate speech and calls to violence.
The report said Twitter executives were aware of the potential for abuse, but refused to slow the roll-out, despite the feature being widely used by white nationalists, Taliban supporters and anti-vaccine activists posting COVID-19 misinformation. Employees who raised concerns about Twitter’s plans to make Spaces available more widely were allegedly told that the technology needed to properly moderate Spaces did not exist, and that its small number of human moderators were unable to listen to tens of thousands of conversations occurring in multiple languages in real-time.
Twitter launched its Clubhouse-like Spaces feature in December 2020 as social audio was steadily growing in popularity. Interest around social audio became increasingly popular at the height of the pandemic, as people around the world were confined to their homes. In October 2021, Twitter rolled out the ability for all anyone to host a Space, opening up the tool to all sorts of groups and people despite a lack of proper moderation.
Zatko also accused his former employer of cybersecurity negligence. During his time at the company, Zatko says he witnessed “egregious deficiencies, negligence, willful ignorance, and threats to national security and democracy,” despite his attempts to flag the security lapses with Twitter’s board, which were ignored.
Twitter recruited Zatko, a renown hacker and security researcher, in late 2020 following a breach that allowed hackers to very publicly hijack the Twitter accounts of high profile accounts, including Joe Biden and Elon Musk.
Zatko was let go from the company in January 2022 along with CISO Rinki Sethi.
It’s worth noting that the complaint could impact Twitter’s ongoing legal fight with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who is trying to get out of a $44 billion agreement to buy the social network. Zatko says Twitter executives don’t have the resources to fully understand the true number of bots on the platform and weren’t motivated to do so.
Twitter spokesperson Madeline Broas told TechCrunch in a boilerplate statement: “Mr. Zatko was fired from his senior executive role at Twitter in January 2022 for ineffective leadership and poor performance. What we’ve seen so far is a false narrative about Twitter and our privacy and data security practices that is riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies and lacks important context. Mr. Zatko’s allegations and opportunistic timing appear designed to capture attention and inflict harm on Twitter, its customers and its shareholders. Security and privacy have long been company-wide priorities at Twitter and will continue to be.”