Indian government forced Twitter to put ‘agent’ on payroll, grant access to user data, says former security chief

Whistle-blower alleges that the company misled regulators about deficiencies in its ability to protect users against hackers or even spam

August 23, 2022 10:54 pm | Updated August 24, 2022 11:56 am IST - NEW DELHI

Twitter has been involved in a long battle with the Indian government over removal/blocking of content on the platform.

Twitter has been involved in a long battle with the Indian government over removal/blocking of content on the platform. | Photo Credit: AFP

Peiter Zatko, former head of security at Twitter, has alleged that the Indian government forced the microblogging platform to put a government agent on its payroll and grant access to sensitive user data, according to a whistle-blower complaint filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

As per a report published by the Washington Post, which obtained the complaint, Mr. Zatko also alleged that the company deceived its users, Board of Directors as well as federal regulators about “extreme, egregious deficiencies” in its ability to protect users against hackers or even spam.

Queries sent to the Ministry of Electronics and IT on these allegations did not elicit response till the time of going to press.

In an emailed response, a Twitter spokesperson said that 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,” the spokesperson said, adding that Mr. Zatko's allegations and opportunistic timing appear designed to capture attention and inflict harm on Twitter, its customers and shareholders.

The spokesperson, however, did not comment on the specific allegation pertaining to the Indian government’s involvement.

The allegations come at a time when Twitter Inc. is embroiled in a legal battle with Elon Musk, who has accused the firm of lying about the true number of bot and spam accounts on the platform. Mr. Musk has backed out of a deal to buy the company for $44 billion.

“Zatko’s complaint says he believed the Indian government had forced Twitter to put one of its agents on the payroll, with access to user data at a time of intense protests in the country,” the Washington Post report said.

“The complaint said supporting information for that claim has gone to the National Security Division of the Justice Department and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Another person familiar with the matter agreed that the employee was probably an agent,” it added.

Twitter has been involved in a long battle with the Indian government over removal/blocking of content on the platform, which has intensified over the past year. The company recently moved the Karnataka High Court, seeking review and relief from “overbroad and arbitrary” content blocking orders from the government, alleging “disproportionate use of power”.

Last year, it had expressed concerns over the use of “intimidation tactics” and “potential threat to freedom of expression” in India. The government had hit back terming such statements an attempt to defame India.

The report further stated that Twitter violated the terms of an 11-year-old settlement with the Federal Trade Commission by falsely claiming that it had a solid security plan.

“Zatko’s complaint alleges he had warned colleagues that half the company’s servers were running out-of-date and vulnerable software and that executives withheld dire facts about the number of breaches and lack of protection for user data, instead presenting directors with rosy charts measuring unimportant changes,” it said.

The complaint also alleged that the company’s chief executive officer Parag Agrawal was “lying” when he tweeted in May that the company was “strongly incentivized to detect and remove as much spam as we possibly can”.

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