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Peiter ‘Mudge’ Zatko: The wild card in Musk’s clash with Twitter

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Peiter 'Mudge' Zatko: The wild card in Musk's clash with Twitter

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk. — © AFP/File Wakil Kohsar

Julie JAMMOT

Respected in cybersecurity circles, former Twitter security chief Peiter “Mudge” Zatko is a wild card in Elon Musk’s legal gambit to break a $44 billion deal to buy the social network.

Zatko’s whistleblower complaint of “extreme, egregious deficiencies” in Twitter defenses against hackers and “meager efforts to fight spam” plays into Musk’s quest to convince a judge that he was duped when he foisted his unsolicited offer on the company.

Twitter has dismissed 51-year-old Zatko’s complaint as being without merit, and vowed to show it did nothing wrong at an October trial in a Delaware court.

If the court focuses on the fact that the world’s richest man declined to do fact gathering typically associated with big-money mergers, Zatko’s allegations could wind up being moot.

He is to testify on Tuesday before a US Senate committee looking into whether security practices at Twitter were dangerously lax.

Zatko first testified before Congress 24 years ago, when he was a long-haired hacker determined to warn about the perils of poorly protected government computer systems.

This time, he will be called on to provide details about his accusations that Twitter hid flaws in its security as well as its fight against accounts run by spammers or software instead of genuine users.

Musk has listed the number of inauthentic accounts on Twitter as among reasons to justify walking away from the buyout deal he made in April.

“Once both parties step into court its a high risk/high reward scenario for both parties with the major X variable now being the Zatko whistleblower claims,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a note to investors.

“We continue to view the Zatko situation as a Pandora’s Box scenario for Twitter.”

If Twitter prevails at trial, the judge could order the Tesla chief to pay billions of dollars to the company, or even complete the purchase.

Twitter shareholders are expected to endorse the buyout deal in a special vote Tuesday.

– ‘Big problems’ –

“If  Mudge says Twitter has cybersecurity problems, Twitter has big problems,” said Vectra cybersecurity firm chief technology officer Aaron Turner, who says he has known Zatko since the 1980s.

A son of scientists, Zatko grew up in the US states of Alabama and Pennsylvania, his passions including music and software.

In 1996, he joined a hacker collective called L0pht. He and other members of the group testified before Congress two years later.

“It was the first time the U.S. government publicly referenced ‘hackers’ in a positive context,” Zatko said in a 2019 tweet marking an anniversary of the testimony.

Zatko has done stints at Google and online payment services company Stripe, and also at Pentagon research arm DARPA.

Twitter founder and former chief Jack Dorsey recruited Zatko in July 2020 after a spectacular hack of the accounts of celebrities and political figures including Barack Obama, Musk and Kim Kardashian.

US President Joe Biden’s team offered Zatko a position as White House security director early last year but he declined the job, believing he had work left to do at Twitter, his attorneys said.

-House of cards? –

Twitter fired Zatko in January, citing “ineffective leadership and poor performance.”

Zatko’s lawyers rejected Twitter’s claim, contending instead that he was terminated after a clash with top executives who refused to acknowledge his concerns about platform security.

“Mr Zatko put his career on the line because of his concerns about Twitter users, the public and the company’s shareholders,” his attorneys said.

Andrew Hay, director of operations at the Lares cybersecurity consulting firm, said “those in the industry who know Mudge know that his intentions have historically been honorable, non-partisan, and designed to benefit the world.”

Zatko’s whistleblower complaint, filed just days after Twitter agreed to give him a multi-million dollar severance package, is not necessarily evidence that the company misrepresented user numbers, according to analysts.

Musk’s lawyers will “try to prove that Twitter tried to sell him a house of cards,” but security flaws would have to be “really serious,” said University  of California, Berkeley law school professor Adam Badawi.

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Cheeky branding wins (and missteps)

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Cheeky branding wins (and missteps)

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Branding and rebranding is getting more fun, here we look at some of cheekiest brands that have caught our eye – for the right and wrong reasons.



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Google Outlines Ongoing Efforts to Combat China-Based Influence Operations Targeting Social Apps

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Google Outlines Ongoing Efforts to Combat China-Based Influence Operations Targeting Social Apps

Over the past year, Google has repeatedly noted that a China-based group has been looking to use YouTube, in particular, to influence western audiences, by building various channels in the app, then seeding them with pro-China content.

There’s limited info available on the full origins or intentions of the group, but today, Google has published a new overview of its ongoing efforts to combat the initiative, called DRAGONBRIDGE.

As explained by Google:

In 2022, Google disrupted over 50,000 instances of DRAGONBRIDGE activity across YouTube, Blogger, and AdSense, reflecting our continued focus on this actor and success in scaling our detection efforts across Google products. We have terminated over 100,000 DRAGONBRIDGE accounts in the IO network’s lifetime.

As you can see in this chart, DRAGONBRIDGE is by far the most prolific source of coordinated information operations that Google has detected over the past year, while Google also notes that it’s been able to disrupt most of the project’s attempted influence, by snuffing out its content before it gets seen.

Dragonbridge

Worth noting the scale too – as Google notes, DRAGONBRIDGE has created more than 100,000 accounts, which includes tens of thousands of YouTube channels. Not individual videos, entire channels in the app, which is a huge amount of work, and content, that this group is producing.

That can’t be cheap, or easy to keep running. So they must be doing it for a reason.

The broader implication, which has been noted by various other publications and analysts, is that DRAGONBRIDGE is potentially being supported by the Chinese Government, as part of a broader effort to influence foreign policy approaches via social media apps. 

Which, at this kind of scale, is a concern, while DRAGONBRIDGE has also targeted Facebook and Twitter as well, at different times, and it could be that their efforts on those platforms are also reaching similar activity levels, and may not have been detected as yet.

Which then also relates to TikTok, a Chinese-owned app that now has massive influence over younger audiences in western nations. If programs like this are already in effect, it stands to reason that TikTok is also likely a key candidate for boosting the same, which remains a key concern among regulators and officials in many nations.

The US Government is reportedly weighing a full TikTok ban, and if that happens, you can bet that many other nations will follow suit. Many government organizations are also banning TikTok on official devices, based on advice from security experts, and with programs like DRAGONBRIDGE also running, it does seem like Chinese-based groups are actively operating influence and manipulation programs in foreign nations.

Which seems like a significant issue, and while Google is seemingly catching most of these channels before they have an impact, it also seems likely that this is only one element of a larger push.

Hopefully, through collective action, the impact of such can be limited – but for TikTok, which still reports to Chinese ownership, it’s another element that could raise further questions and scrutiny.

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The Drum | Trump’s Instagram & Facebook Reinstatement Won’t Cause Marketers To Riot Yet, Experts Say

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The Drum | Trump's Instagram & Facebook Reinstatement Won’t Cause Marketers To Riot Yet, Experts Say

While the reinstatement of Donald Trump’s Twitter account in November had some advertisers packing up in protest, many will strike a different tune with Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram, experts predict.

Meta Wednesday announced that it’s lifting the ban on a handful of Facebook and Instagram accounts, including that of former US president Donald Trump – who was suspended nearly two years ago following the January 6, 2021 riots at the Capitol.

In a blog post yesterday, Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, explained the reasons for the company’s decision, saying that it “evaluated the current environment” as it pertains to the socio-political landscape and security concerns and determined that “risk has sufficiently receded.” As a result, the company will welcome Trump back onto Facebook and Instagram.

The former president will be expected to comply with Meta’s user policies, but, considering his past violations, will face “heightened penalties for repeat offenses,” Clegg explained.

While it’s unclear whether Trump will become an active user on either platform following the decision, media and marketing experts are already sounding alarm bells at his potential return.

In particular, experts are cautious considering recent developments at Twitter. Elon Musk’s turbulent takeover – which has included mass layoffs, dramatic platform changes and the decision to reinstate the accounts of controversial figures like Trump and Kanye West (whose account has since been re-suspended) – has led to an exodus of advertisers. Could Meta’s decision to reintroduce Trump invite a similar fate?

‘Fear, frustration and protest’ could catalyze drawback

Concerns regarding brand safety and suitability on Facebook and Instagram are piquing among marketers. Trump’s presence on social media has long proven to exacerbate the spread of misinformation online. The risks of a potential recession, paired with new political tensions spurred by the 2022 midterms and the anticipation of the 2024 presidential election, may only up the ante.

“Misinformation on Meta’s platforms was an issue prior to Trump’s ban, during the ban and will likely continue to be an issue, even with the new [policies that] Meta has put in place,” says Laura Ries, group director of media and connections at IPG-owned ad agency R/GA. In light of this fact, Ries says, “Advertisers will need to continue to consider the type of content they’ll show up next to when evaluating whether or not to advertise on the platforms, especially as we march toward the 2024 election.”

She predicts that Meta may see some advertisers leave Facebook and Instagram “out of fear, frustration or protest.”

Others agree. “I suspect advertisers will not be pleased with this move and might make reductions in spend as they have done with Twitter,” says Tim Lim, a political strategist, PR consultant and partner at creative agency The Hooligans.

Although some advertisers are sure to pull back or cut their investments, the number will likely be low – largely because the scale and reach promised by both Facebook and Instagram will make it hard for most advertisers to quit. Smaller brands and startups in particular often rely heavily on Meta’s advertising business to spur growth, says Ries.

A ripple, not a wave

Most industry leaders believe Trump’s reinstatement won’t cause anything more than a ripple in the advertising industry. “Marketers who advertise on Facebook and Instagram care about their own problems, which generally [entail] selling more products and services,” says Joe Pulizzi, an entrepreneur, podcaster and author of various marketing books. “If Meta helps them do that, they don’t care one bit about brand safety – unless this blows up into a big political issue again. It might not, so marketers won’t do a thing.”

The sentiment is underscored by Dr Karen Freberg, a professor of strategic communications at University of Louisville, who says: “Facebook and Instagram are key fundamental platforms for advertisers. Marketers may … be aware of the news, but I am not sure if it will make a drastic change for the industry.” She points out that Twitter’s decision to lift the ban on Trump’s account in November caused such a big stir among marketers advertisers that Meta’s decision to do the same may come as less of a shock.

Trump’s return may even benefit Meta’s ads business by giving the company new opportunities to serve ads to Trump devotees, says Pulizzi. Ultimately, he says, Meta “needs personalities like Trump,” who, whether through love or hate, inspire higher engagement. “With Facebook plateauing and Instagram now chasing – and copying – TikTok at every turn, Trump’s follower base is important to Meta, which is hard to believe, but I think it’s true.”

But while some users may be energized by the former president’s return to Meta platforms, others may be outraged – even to the point of quitting Facebook and Instagram, points out Ries. In this case, she says, “advertisers will need to follow them to TikTok, Snap or other platforms where they’re spending their newfound time.”

R/GA, for its part, which services major brands including Google, Samsung, Verizon and Slack, will work on “a client by client basis” to address concerns about Facebook, Instagram or any other platform, says Ries. “R/GA recommended pausing activity on Facebook and Instagram after the insurrection and won’t hesitate to do so again if another incident occurs.”

For more, sign up for The Drum’s daily US newsletter here.

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