Twitter, Meta, and Blowing the Whistle on Big Tech

Hi, folks. We won’t have Fauci to kick around much longer. But we’ll always have Covid.

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The Plain View

In late 1969, Daniel Ellsberg made a brave and consequential decision. As an employee of the RAND Corporation, a US government contractor, he had access to classified documents that contradicted top officials’ promises that the Vietnam War could be won. He secretly copied the documents and for the next year tried to get them made public, first through Congress, then through the press. In June 1971, The New York Times published the first of a series of articles on what would be known as the Pentagon Papers. The government sued to suppress them, and while the case made its way through the courts, Ellsberg leaked the papers to The Washington Post. By that time the FBI was after him, though he had not publicly admitted his role as the whistleblower. He came clean just before the Supreme Court allowed the Times to continue publishing on June 30. Ellsberg was arrested and tried for theft and conspiracy, going free only because of government misconduct.

Earlier this year, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko made a decision of his own. A security expert handpicked by Twitter’s then-CEO Jack Dorsey in November 2020 to address the company’s chronic failings, he was fired last January after clashes with the current CEO, Parag Agrawal. Zatko believed that Twitter’s management wasn’t taking steps to fix its security problems—and that Agrawal was lying about those shortcomings to the board of directors, shareholders, and regulators. Like Ellsberg, he decided to go public. Unlike Ellsberg, Zatko was able to tap the services of a nonprofit, Whistleblower Aid, set up specifically to assist people like him and keep them out of legal trouble. After meeting him in March, a cofounder of the nonprofit, John Tye, agreed to work with Zatko.

Zatko and his handlers strategized and launched a coordinated campaign to expose Twitter’s alleged wrongdoing. They used a full rack of Scrabble tiles to file agency complaints … SEC, FTC, DOJ. Zatko met with the staffers of several congressional committees and is scheduled to testify. Most dramatically, he and his team broke news by orchestrating a leak of his complaints from one of the congressional committees. The recipients were The Washington Post and CNN, and their stories went live under a shared embargo on August 23. Zatko gave interviews to both organizations, which treated him lovingly. The Post photographer even captured an artsy shot of Zatko and his mirror reflection, full of oracle vibes. (In contrast, Agrawal was pictured glumly roaming the grounds of an unnamed conference in a dark hoodie.)

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because last year another whistleblower, former Meta program manager Frances Haugen, had a similar rollout of her allegations, complete with agency and congressional briefings and glam images on 60 Minutes and in The Wall Street Journal. And of course, redacted documents leaked just in time from a congressional friend. No coincidence that her whistleblower sherpa was the same as Zatko’s, John Tye.

Whistleblowers of conscience have been around as long as institutional malfeasance has existed, but it’s become something of a trend in tech. In part, this is because of recent laws that give protection to whistleblowers in certain cases, notably when it comes to reporting corporate fraud to the SEC. But the phenomenon also reflects a workforce fed up with employers who have seemingly abandoned their once idealistic principles. “Whistleblowing is a growth industry,” says Tye, who himself once blew the whistle on the NSA before cofounding his organization.

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