A whistle-blower’s disclosure that the Indian Government forced Twitter to hire its agent, who then got access to the platform’s user data, should alarm anyone even remotely interested in the health of democracy in the country. At the very least, it requires an official response from the Government as also from Twitter, arguably the most influential social media network of these times. Instead, there now is silence. But perhaps this is hardly surprising, given how such matters have played themselves out in recent years. The disclosure was made to U.S. government agencies and congressional committees last month but came to light when CNN and The Washington Post reported about it last week. The whistle-blower is Peiter ‘Mudge’ Zatko, a cybersecurity expert brought in to help a Jack Dorsey-run Twitter in November 2020 to confront challenges related to security and privacy. He was fired by Mr. Dorsey’s successor Parag Agrawal early this year. In his short stint there, he found that Twitter had a long way to go to address security vulnerabilities — the disclosure says, “he uncovered extreme, egregious deficiencies by Twitter”. But, according to Mr. Zatko’s disclosure, Twitter conveyed a very different message to the outside world, and thus ended up deceiving everyone from users to investors, and from the Federal Trade Commission to Elon Musk (who not long ago seemed to want to buy the social media network).
The Indian angle may be a side-story in all this but, worryingly for the world’s largest democracy, comes under the ambit of what Mr. Zatko considers “multiple episodes suggesting that Twitter had been penetrated by foreign intelligence agencies and/or was complicit in threats to democratic governance”. To be fair, there are unanswered questions about this part of his disclosure, whose most important line is the following: “The Indian government forced Twitter to hire specific individual(s) who were government agents, who (because of Twitter’s basic architectural flaws) would have access to vast amounts of Twitter sensitive data”. It is not clear, for instance, whether the agent he is referring to is the grievance officer that social media networks operating in India are required to recruit, as per the new laws framed last year. Also, it may seem that the access to sensitive data that this agent has is a product of Twitter’s own flaws and not anything else. That is why a clarification is important. In recent years, the Government has come across as being too eager to block its critics on social platforms. That, on top of unfettered access to sensitive user data, as is being alleged in the disclosure, can kill free speech. It is now time for the Government to assure everyone that it is indeed batting for the individual’s rights of free speech and privacy.