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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.

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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’ –

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“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? –

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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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Meta Will Shut Down its Newsletter Platform Early Next Year

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Meta's Reallocating Resources Away from Bulletin and its News Tab, Which Could See Publishers Lose Out

In news that will surprise no-one, Meta has today confirmed that it’s shutting down its ‘Bulletin’ newsletter platform, just 18 months after its initial launch.

Another sign of Meta’s fleeting interest in the latest trends, the company launched Bulletin in April 2021, as part of an effort to take a piece of the growing newsletter market, with platforms like Substack seeing massive growth in facilitating direct connection between writers and their audiences. Twitter also acquired newsletter platform Revue, and it had seemed, at the time, that newsletters could offer a new, supplementary income stream for creators, aligned with social apps.

In addition to this, Meta also saw an opportunity to provide a platform for local publications that had been shut down due to the pandemic. With ad dollars from local businesses drying up, due to lockdown measures, many smaller publications had to shut down, and Meta viewed this as a chance to make Facebook an even more critical element of community engagement, by providing a direct pathway for independent journalists to serve their audiences through the app.

As part of its initial push, Meta allocated $5 million in funding for local publications to convert to Bulletin instead.

And it sort of worked. Bulletin, at last at one stage, supported over 115 publications, with more than half of the creators on the platform reaching over 1,000 subscribers.

But this year, amid tougher market conditions, Meta lost interest.

The company has been gradually scaling back its investment in news and original content in recent months. Back in July, The Wall Street Journal reported that Meta had reallocated resources from both its Facebook News tab and Bulletin, in order to ‘heighten their focus on building a more robust Creator economy’

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In other words, Reels – Meta’s main investment focus for the future of the Creator Economy is short-form video content, which drives more views, more engagement, and is the big trend that Meta’s chasing right now.

As a result, Meta says that it will shut down Bulletin by early next year.

As per Meta:

“Bulletin has allowed us to learn about the relationship between Creators and their audiences and how to better support them in building their community on Facebook. While this off-platform product itself is ending, we remain committed to supporting these and other Creators’ success and growth on our platform.”

So long as they create Reels, I guess.

Again, the decision here is no surprise, but it does serve as another reminder that Meta chases whatever trends it can, and it has no real, long-term commitment on any of its new pushes.

Video is the thing, as it has been several times before, and Meta will keep pushing that till audiences lose interest. Then it’ll be something else that Meta’s pitching to brands, publishers, users, etc.

Logically, Meta follows the latest trends in order to maximize the benefit of such within its tools. But it is worth noting that, when it does lose interest, it tends to move on entirely, leaving anyone who’s invested in its last whim out in the cold.

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Overall, Bulletin isn’t huge, and it won’t impact a heap of writers and publishers, as such. But even so, for those that have invested in the platform, in good faith, it’s a bitter pill, and while they will now be able to move on to other platforms as well, it’s good to remind yourself that Meta chases trends, and moves on quick.

‘Don’t build on rented land’. ‘Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket’. Don’t trust social platforms to keep supporting that feature or platform that you’ve come to rely on.

The closure of Bulletin may seem like a side note to many, but it’s an important reminder that you need to diversify your strategy to avoid such impacts.

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