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Twitter Whistleblower Reveals Employees Concerned China Could Collect User Data

Published: September 13, 2022
Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, former head of security at Twitter, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on data security at Twitter, on Capitol Hill, Sept. 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. Zatko claims that Twitter's widespread security failures pose a security risk to user's privacy and information and could potentially endanger national security. (Image: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Disclosures from a former Twitter Inc executive turned whistleblower show that at least one Chinese agent is working at the company, Senator Chuck Grassley said in his opening remarks during a Senate hearing on Tuesday featuring testimony from the whistleblower.

Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, a famed hacker who served as Twitter’s head of security until his firing last year, said during the hearing that some Twitter employees were concerned that the Chinese government would be able to collect data on the company’s users.

He referenced a Reuters story on Tuesday that detailed internal clashes between some teams that wanted to maximize the ad revenue opportunity from Chinese advertisers and others who were concerned about doing business inside China amid rising geopolitical tensions.

“In a nutshell, if we were already in bed, it would be problematic if we lost that revenue stream,” Zatko said.

“His disclosures also note that the FBI notified Twitter of at least one Chinese agent in the company,” Grassley said in his opening statement.

Grassley noted that Twitter Chief Executive Parag Agrawal refused to appear at the hearing for fear it could jeopardize the company’s litigation against Elon Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla. Twitter and Musk head to trial next month over whether the $44 billion takeover deal should be completed.

Later on Tuesday, Twitter will also announce the results of a shareholder vote on Musk’s takeover of the company. A majority of shareholders have already approved the deal, sources told Reuters.

The San Francisco-based company sued Musk for terminating the agreement, while the Tesla chief executive counter sued, accusing Twitter of misrepresenting the number of false and spam accounts on its service.

A Delaware judge ruled last week that Musk may include Zatko’s whistleblower claims in his case against Twitter, but denied his request to delay the trial.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is questioning Zatko over his claims that Twitter misled regulators about its compliance with a 2011 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over improper handling of user data.

Since then, Twitter has made “little meaningful progress on basic security, integrity and privacy systems,” Zatko’s complaint filed with regulators in July said.

The committee, chaired by U.S. Senator Dick Durban, is also expected to press Zatko on his allegation that one or more of Twitter’s employees worked on behalf of foreign governments.

Durbin, speaking to reporters on Monday, said Zatko’s claims were “a matter of grave personal and privacy concern.”

Twitter has said Zatko was fired for “ineffective leadership and poor performance,” and that his allegations appeared designed to harm Twitter.

Zatko’s whistleblower complaint appeared to contain over two pages of links to supporting documents, such as emails between Zatko and Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal and an assessment of misinformation and disinformation on Twitter. The number of documents was limited compared to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who released thousands of pages of internal material.

By Reuters (Reporting by Sheila Dang in Dallas; additional reporting by Richard Cowan and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Nick Zieminski and Lisa Shumaker)