Aug 23, 2022 - Economy

Twitter whistleblower complaint could help Elon Musk

Photo illustration of Elon Musk standing in front of a chalkboard featuring a drawing of a robot and a can of spam

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images

Elon Musk may have just gotten some much-needed help in his legal fight against Twitter.

Driving the news: Twitter's former security chief, Peiter "Mudge" Zatko, last month filed a 200-page whistleblower report with Congress and various federal agencies, as first reported by CNN and the Washington Post.

  • Zatko's claims relate to security vulnerabilities, user data retention and bot calculations.

Why it matters: Musk's primary legal argument is that Twitter's securities filings include material misstatements about bot prevalence, and that he wouldn't have agreed to buy the company for $44 billion had he known the truth.

  • Zatko doesn't exactly mirror what Musk believes about bot number manipulation, nor does he claim anything about financial materiality. Instead, he claims (per reports) that "Twitter executives don't have the resources to fully understand the true number of bots on the platform, and were not motivated to." But obviously it's better for Musk than it is for Twitter.
  • More important might be the security vulnerability and user data claims, since they'd possibly prompt Musk to make a new argument that Twitter isn't abiding by a 2011 settlement with the DOJ and FTC, counter to its public representations (he'd still have to subsequently prove materiality).

What Twitter is saying, via an emailed 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."

What Musk is saying: Nothing. Yet.

  • But his lawyers have been busy, yesterday adding former Jack Dorsey to their long list of subpoena recipients. Dorsey, while still Twitter's CEO, hired Zatko as a direct report.

More on Zatko from Axios Codebook author Sam Sabin: "He's seminal figure in world of cybersecurity, cofounder of legendary 'Cult of the Dead Cow' hacker collective and early researcher into buffer overflow. Zatko has built a reputation in the last three decades as not being afraid to publicly disclose security flaws in high-profile companies' technology, is a former Pentagon official and has testified to Congress on cyber issues."

The bottom line: Musk remains a legal underdog as this dispute slogs toward an October trial in Delaware, and none of Zatko's allegations have been verified. But these new developments give him a glint of silver lining.

Go deeper