A former senior Twitter executive has alleged that the Indian government “forced” the social media company to hire one or more individuals who were “government agents” and had access to vast amounts of the platform’s user data, according to a whistleblower disclosure with US regulators. The allegations come amid the company’s legal challenge with the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) over its content blocking orders.
“The company did not in fact disclose to users that it was believed by the executive team that the Indian government had succeeded in placing agents on the company payroll,” Peiter ‘Mudge’ Zatko, former head of safety at Twitter, said in his complaint filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
He alleged that the company “knowingly” permitted an “Indian government agent direct unsupervised access to the company’s systems and user data”.
In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson said that Zatko was fired from his role in the company in January 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,” the person said.
In February last year, MeitY notified the Information Technology Rules, 2021. These rules mandated social media companies to hire key personnel — nodal officers — who would solely liaison with law enforcement agencies to assist them in investigations. The companies were also required to hire a compliance officer, who would ensure compliance with the rules, and a grievance officer, who would resolve user complaints.
It is unclear whether there is any link between Zatko’s claims about Twitter staffing a “government agent” and the employees the company was mandated to hire under the IT Rules, 2021. Zatko has told The Washington Post that evidence to support this claim have been shared with US intelligence. Twitter did not respond to a query seeking clarification on the possibility of this link. An email sent to MeitY too was unanswered until press time.
In his complaint, Zatko also said that in countries where Twitter was needed to have a physical presence and full time employees, “the threat of harm to Twitter employees was sufficient to cause (it) to seriously consider complying with foreign government requests that (it) would otherwise fundamentally oppose”. He added that the government of India, along with those of Russia and Nigeria, “sought, with varying success, to force Twitter to hire local FTEs (full time employees) that could be used as leverage”.
The revelations come as Twitter is engaged in two high-profile legal battles — one with the Centre over some of its content blocking orders, and another one with Tesla CEO Elon Musk in the US over his desire to pull out of his $44-billion bid to buy the social media companies.
Last month, the company had moved the Karnataka High Court seeking to overturn 39 links flagged by the MeitY to be blocked, claiming that the blocking orders were beyond the purview of the law.
Twitter also sued Musk for wanting to terminate his deal for buying the platform. Notably, in this legal action, Musk has alleged that the company’s decision to challenge MeitY’s blocking orders was a “departure from the ordinary course” and put its business in India “at risk”. Twitter, in response, has stated that its actions in India are in line with its “global practice” of challenging government requests or laws if it believes that such requests are not “properly scoped under local law, are procedurally deficient, or as necessary to defend its users’ rights, including freedom of expression”.