Select Page
The Twitter Whistleblower’s Testimony Has Senators Out for Blood

The Twitter Whistleblower’s Testimony Has Senators Out for Blood

Many of Silicon Valley’s fiercest watchdogs on Capitol Hill are now snarling. Yesterday’s arresting testimony by Twitter’s former security chief, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, has lawmakers in both parties redoubling their efforts to rein in the tech titans.

Zatko’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee follows a detailed report he submitted to the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission late last month. His allegations, which were the central subject of yesterday’s hearing, range from claims of lax security protocols to negligent leadership—all of which Twitter denies.

Even as senators were left seething—guess they aren’t fans of Twitter’s 4,000 or so employees having easy access to their accounts and millions of others, as Zatko alleges—there’s also a sense of renewal in the air at the Capital.

“That was a fun one,” Republican senator Mike Lee told WIRED after the hearing.

The anger cloaked in elation is, in part, because many senators feel they now found the proverbial smoking gun.

“My guess is that this testimony today will trigger a lot of class actions,” Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana said after questioning the witness on Tuesday. “And it should.”

The Republican is referring to Zatko’s allegation that the social media platform lacks basic security measures, such as tracking which of the company’s hundreds of engineers are inside the platform making changes. This includes, according to Zatko, the potential mining of a United States senator’s own account.

“I’m assuming they have,” Kennedy said.

Hence the snarling. Like the rest of us, US senators are protective of their private data. And a growing consensus in Washington is that the FTC is ill-suited to take on social media giants who, according to Zatko, laugh off $150 million fines and all the demands the FTC places on bad tech actors.

“Maybe the thing to do is put it in the hands of private litigants,” Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri said. “Lawsuits are powerful things, so maybe it’s, we let the folks who are getting doxed and the folks who are getting hacked and whatever—we give them the power to go into court. Then you get discovery.”

While senators plan to ask Twitter officials to testify—likely with an assist from subpoenas—in response to the accusations from their former executive, they also don’t seem to be waiting. Senator Hawley is now trying to breathe new life into his out-of-the-box proposal to move the FTC’s tech portfolio to the Department of Justice, though he’s open to many reform ideas floating around Washington.

Hawley and outspoken senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina are renewing their calls to eradicate Section 230—the law, passed by Congress in the internet’s infancy, that protects online companies from certain kinds of litigation for content users publish on their platforms.

“You’ve got to license the people. Apparently, money doesn’t matter to them. Losing your ability to operate would matter,” Graham said. “So if you were licensed, then you have something you could lose.”

Graham has teamed up with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in calling for the creation of a new federal regulatory body focused on tech companies. While the two agree the FTC is currently incapable of overseeing Silicon Valley, they disagree on Section 230, which Graham has wanted to be reformed for some time.

Queen Elizabeth II Has Died. Her Internet Legacy Will Live On

Queen Elizabeth II Has Died. Her Internet Legacy Will Live On

The death of Queen Elizabeth II was expected for years—and presaged by strong rumors on social media. It’s fitting for a woman of her global stature and recognition that the online conversation today has been dominated by discussions of the queen.

For a 96-year-old representing an institution that dates back centuries, the queen was more tech-savvy than many imagine. Defying stereotypes about women of her age, Elizabeth—through her handlers—was an enthusiastic adherent of technology. She sent her first email when visiting the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern, England, in 1976 as part of the early development of Arpanet, the precursor to today’s global internet.

The queen’s username? HME2: Her Majesty, Elizabeth II. “All she had to do was press a couple of buttons,” Peter Kirstein, the man who helped set up the queen’s email account back then, told WIRED in 2012.

She wasn’t just an early adopter of email. In 1997, she launched the first version of the royal family’s website, years before some major UK newspapers decided to go online. Ten years later, she launched the family’s YouTube channel with a rare video of the first televised Christmas Broadcast in 1957. She also sent her first tweet in 2014, and she tapped on an iPad and embraced Zoom meetings as her health failed and Covid lockdowns curtailed many of her in-person public engagements.

“I think the queen has been extremely savvy on the internet,” said Sadie Quinlan, a pro-royal YouTuber who posts under the name Yankee Wally. (Quinlan has been criticized for her anti–Meghan Markle commentary videos.) “I think she knows what’s going on, and I know she knows it’s quite wild, and life continues on the internet more so than real life.”

But in recent years, the queen, whose motto through the royal family was “never complain, never explain,” became more than an early tech adopter. She became a meme, enthusiastically deployed by social media users looking to offer wry commentary on their peers. “The internet loves a little old lady being quirky,” says Idil Galip, who studies memes at the University of Edinburgh and operates the Meme Studies Research Network. That the queen had a love of corgis, at one point owning nine of them, also helped endear her to the online masses. “I think her love of animals has also been an important part of why she has been memefied,” says Galip. “The internet also loves corgis, and so does the queen.”

The endless, listless life of building openings and public events also gave the queen plenty of opportunities to become a meme. From her excitement at seeing cows as part of her 90th birthday celebrations in 2016 to cutting a simple cake with a ceremonial sword in 2021, she showed an ability to play to the masses. “I think many people also enjoy getting a peek behind the facade of royal aloofness and being like, ‘Oh she’s just like us,’” says Galip.

The US Has a Plan to Document Human Rights Violations in Ukraine

The US Has a Plan to Document Human Rights Violations in Ukraine

The US announced today that it will fund data-gathering on the conflict in Ukraine. In addition to laying the groundwork for war-crime prosecutions, the move would share critical, real-time data with humanitarian organizations.

The newly established Conflict Observatory will use open source investigation techniques and satellite imagery to monitor the conflict in Ukraine and collect evidence of possible war crimes. Outside organizations and international investigators would be able access the resulting database, a US State Department spokesperson confirmed in an email.

Partners for the Conflict Observatory include Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, artificial intelligence company PlanetScape Ai, and Esri, a geographic information systems company, according to a State Department press release. The Observatory will have access to commercial satellite data and imagery from the US government, which will “allow civil society groups to move at a faster pace, towards a speed once reserved for US intelligence,” says Nathaniel Raymond, a lecturer at Yale’s Jackson School of Global Affairs and a coleader of the Humanitarian Research Lab.

Raymond himself is no stranger to using technology to investigate conflicts and crises. More than a decade ago he was the director of operations for the Satellite Sentinel Project, cofounded by actor George Clooney, which used satellite imagery to monitor the conflict in South Sudan and documented human rights abuses. It was the first initiative of its kind but would be too costly and resource-intensive for other organizations to replicate.

“This kind of work is very labor-intensive,” says Alexa Koenig, executive director at the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law. “I think on the money and capacity side, we’re at a moment where a lot of these organizations do need to be thinking about the information environment in which they’re working. Open source information can be invaluable at the preliminary investigation stage, as you’re planning either humanitarian relief or to conduct a legal investigation.”

None of the data the Observatory will use and disseminate is classified; the satellite imagery will be taken from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s commercial contracts with private companies. But having access to many types of data in one place, rather than spread across many different entities, and the ability to analyze it, would make it powerful. Although the Observatory would be using publicly available data, it does not plan to make its data open source, unlike many other humanitarian projects, according to Raymond.

“The level of detail and how fast, in some cases, imagery data can be collected means that it could have value for those seeking to target civilians and protected infrastructure like hospitals and shelters,” he says.

Raymond is particularly aware of these kinds of risks. While he was at Satellite Sentinel, a report that the group published may have led to the kidnapping of a group of Chinese road workers by the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Though the image had been de-identified by removing longitude and latitude, Raymond says locals could have recognized the terrain and identified where the road crew was.

Alas, Elon Musk May Have a Point About Trump’s Twitter Ban

Alas, Elon Musk May Have a Point About Trump’s Twitter Ban

From the moment Elon Musk announced his intention to buy Twitter and impose upon it his version of free speech, speculation swirled about whether he would let Donald Trump, the ultimate Twitter scofflaw, return to the platform. Well, the suspense is over. On Tuesday, Musk confirmed what most people suspected, announcing at a Financial Times conference that he would “reverse the permanent ban” of the former president’s account. Trump, you will recall, got booted from Twitter on January 6, 2021, after his tweets during the Capitol riot were deemed to violate Twitter’s rules against glorifying violence.

As usual, the precise logic of Musk’s reasoning is hard to follow. He previously suggested that, under his ownership, Twitter would allow any content that doesn’t violate the law. But on Tuesday, he said that Twitter should still suppress tweets or temporarily suspend accounts “if they say something that is illegal or otherwise just, you know, destructive to the world.” In case that was too precise, he added, “If there are tweets that are wrong and bad, those should be either deleted or made invisible, and a suspension—a temporary suspension—is appropriate, but not a permanent ban.” 

If anything, deleting tweets that are “wrong and bad” suggests a broader, more easily abused standard of content moderation than Twitter currently deploys. (Wrong and bad according to whom?) The most likely explanation for Musk’s conflicting statements is that he’s simply making this up as he goes and has not given any serious thought to how content rules should work on the social platform that he’s trying to spend $44 billion to buy. And yet, buried in Musk’s free-speech word salad is a crouton of wisdom worth chewing on. Maybe Twitter really should rethink the use of permanent bans—not just for Trump, but for everyone.

The Trump Twitter ban has always been tough to analyze. A set of equally valid competing values point in conflicting directions. On the one hand, Twitter is a private company that can do what it wants. On the other hand, it holds an important role in American politics and public debate, such that its choices have broad consequences that bear on how democracy functions in the US. On the one hand, the public has an especially strong interest in hearing what political figures have to say; if the president has deranged or odious beliefs, that’s important information to know. On the other hand, there is something unseemly about exempting the most powerful members of society from rules that ordinary people have to abide by. Especially since rule violations by someone in Trump’s position are more dangerous than by some random Twitter user.

Getting rid of permanent bans offers one way to square these seemingly incompatible positions: In general, don’t hand out lifetime bans for average users or political figures. A permanent ban from Twitter is a harsh sentence. The platform occupies a unique place in American political life, which is precisely why Trump and other political figures are so obsessed with it. It’s where the hyper-educated “elite” who disproportionately make up the political class, especially the media, spend way too much of their time and attention. 

This is unfortunate, but it’s reality. If you want important people in media and politics to pay attention to your ideas, the best, most direct way to do that is to get into their Twitter feeds. Cutting someone off from Twitter—or from other major social platforms—can seriously constrain their ability to participate in public debate. As the Supreme Court held in 2016, “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.” That was referring to an act of government, not a private enforcement decision. That distinction matters for legal purposes, but from the user perspective, the impact is the same regardless of who’s doing the banning. (Facebook at first shut Trump’s account “indefinitely” after the riot, but later agreed to the Facebook Oversight Board’s recommendation to revisit his case after a two-year suspension. YouTube has not said anything about whether or when it will let Trump back on its platform.)

Washington State Passed a Contentious New Gig Worker Law

Washington State Passed a Contentious New Gig Worker Law

James Childers says he really likes his job driving for Uber and Lyft in Spokane, a city in Washington State. But since he started working for ride-hailing companies in 2017, he’s seen drivers’ shares of each fare slip. Once, three-quarters of each trip went right into his pocket, he says, and now the companies use formulas that can see drivers earn just $9 per hour before sometimes spotty tips, below the state’s minimum wage.

But Childers only became involved with Drivers Union—an advocacy group affiliated with the local Teamsters labor union—after an intransigent passenger’s accusation of racism got him temporarily kicked off the Uber app. (The company relented when he showed the company a dashcam recording of the incident, he says.) “Uber and Lyft do not care,” he says. “They have other drivers waiting in the wings.” The company declined to comment on the specific incident.

Now Childers is hoping that a new state law governing ride-hailing drivers, signed by Washington governor Jay Inslee on Thursday, will give drivers more recourse against the companies, and pay that at least equals what it was five years ago. The bill, which was the result of negotiations between Uber, Lyft, and the local affiliate of the Teamsters, maintains the independent contractor status of drivers in the state—and protects ride-hailing companies’ core business model.

Drivers statewide will receive new rights. They will accrue sick pay and receive minimum pay guarantees based on the time and distance they spend on each trip, though the guarantees will only apply to the time they are carrying or picking up passengers. Drivers generally report they spend 40 to 60 percent of their time without people in their cars. They can also choose to use a new 15 cent passenger fee to fund a drivers’ resource center, which could provide recourse to those who are kicked off the companies’ apps. But drivers will not get the full set of traditional benefits that come with being staff members, including health care. And ride-hailing companies will still not pay into unemployment insurance programs, a factor that frustrated many drivers during the pandemic, when rides suddenly dried up.

In a statement, Ramona Prieto, Uber’s head of policy in the western US, said the bill allowed drivers “to stay independent while gaining historic new benefits and protections.” Lyft’s head of government relations, Jen Hensley, said the law gives drivers the “flexibility, independence, benefits, and protections they want and deserve.”

At the eleventh hour on Thursday, the National Teamsters labor union’s newly appointed president, Sean O’Brien, publicly called for the state’s governor to veto the bill, saying that it would usher in standards that could erode existing workers’ rights in other sectors.

The Teamsters’ local chapter, which helped draft the bill, disagrees. “Uber and Lyft drivers—like all workers—deserve a labor movement that will respect their right to self-determination to set their own priorities, stand in solidarity with them in their struggles, and never give up the fight for fairness and justice,” union secretary-treasurer John Scearcy said in a statement.