Senators: DOJ, FTC Must Investigate Twitter Whistleblower Claims

Capitol Building

News that a Twitter whistleblower is leveling serious allegations against the company related to its protection, or knowing lack thereof, of user's privacy and security, Hill Democrats already unhappy with Big Tech are calling for answers ASAP, including through investigations by the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department.

There were multiple reports Tuesday (Aug. 23) that former Twitter head of security Peiter Zatko (the former "hacker" formerly known as "Mudge"), who was fired from the company in January, had filed a complaint with the SEC, DOJ and the FTC against the company alleging he was made to mislead the board and investors about security protections .

Zatko claims he was fired as retaliation, but Twitter told NBC News that the firing was for cause--poor performance--and that Zatko was relaying a "false narrative."

That complaint could potentially buttress billionaire Elon Musk's effort to extract himself from a planned purchase of the company, whose business practices, specifically regarding spam and fake accounts, he has cited as the reason.

In the wake of those reports, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pressed for investigations into the complaints.

"Twitter has continued to suffer embarrassing security incidents and face ongoing scrutiny for misleading users and regulators,” Markey said in calling for investigations by Justice and the FTC. “This blithe disregard for user data and FTC settlements cannot stand. I strongly urge the federal government to investigate Zatko’s claims and, if necessary, take strong and swift action against Twitter to ensure Twitter user data is properly protected.”

He also said it appeared Twitter had, again, violated the terms of a 2011 consent decree with Justice and DOJ, pointing out that in May it had agreed to pay $150 million to settle allegations it had violated the decree by using its users' e-mail address and phone numbers for marketing purposes after promising not to.

Sen. Blumenthal, chair of the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee, echoed Markey's concern, as well as the call for investigations tied to Twitter's consent decree orders.

“If the Commission does not vigorously oversee and enforce its orders, they will not be taken seriously and these dangerous breaches will continue,” Blumenthal said. “I urge the Commission to investigate the allegations and information provided in Mr. Zatko’s whistleblower complaint, and to bring enforcement actions against any breaches of its consent decree or business practices that are unfair or deceptive, including bringing civil penalties and imposing liability on individual Twitter executives where appropriate.”

In 2011, Twitter agreed to a settlement that would impose "substantial financial penalties" if it "further misrepresented 'the extent to which [Twitter] maintains and protects the security, privacy, confidentiality, or integrity of any nonpublic consumer information," the FTC said at the time.

There is bipartisan criticism of Big Tech on the Hill, fueled in part by the revelations of another whistleblower--former Facebook exec Frances Haugen, who created quite a stir last November on Capitol Hill with testimony, including in Blumenthal's subcommittee, in which she revealed internal Facebook research showing the company knew its Instagram platform could be harmful to some teens. ■ 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.