For Musk’s lawyers, it was the opening salvo in a strategy expected to lean more heavily on the allegations of whistleblower Peiter Zatko, Twitter’s former chief security officer.
Former security chief claims Twitter has buried ‘horrendous flaws’
“Mr. Zatko, who was responsible for a lot of this — including processing and removing various spambots — he was not a low-level employee,” said Musk’s attorney Alex Spiro. “He was one of the top handful of officers in the company.”
“As Mr. Zatko put it, management had no appetite to measure fine accounts properly,” he said.
Twitter’s lawyers, however, stood by the data requests, citing the sensitivity of the information.
In the 84-page complaint obtained by The Post, Zatko alleges that Twitter lied to Musk about bots and spammy accounts, and that the site had serious security flaws that cast doubt on the validity of its statements to federal regulators — and possibly to Musk as well. Still, there was little hard documentation to back up his claims about spam and bots, and he left the company months before Musk decided to buy the company.
Musk and Twitter’s lawyers appeared in Delaware Chancery Court for a discovery hearing in their ongoing dispute. Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, announced he was withdrawing from his $44 billion deal to buy Twitter in July over concerns over Twitter’s count of bot and spam profiles, which Musk claims greatly underestimates the true number of inauthentic accounts . Twitter sued Musk alleging breach of contract days later. Musk filed a countersuit in late July.
New whistleblower allegations could have implications for the lawsuit between Twitter and Musk
Musk had become increasingly vocal about his concerns with spam and robots amid a decline in tech stocks and pressure on Tesla began to cut into his net worth. That had led to questions about Musk’s ability to finance the deal.
The hearing Wednesday concerned the ability of Musk’s team to demand information about Twitter’s internal practices and data. The judge previously convicted Musk’s team when it tried to gather information from more than 20 company executives. One of the executives that Musk’s team had requested information from was Zatko. But the judge rejected the request, raising the possibility that Musk’s side will use the new revelations to backtrack on the request.
Twitter has previously disputed the characterizations made by the whistleblower and by Musk regarding spam and bots. Several leading artificial intelligence experts have publicly endorsed Twitter’s methodology for spam and bot calculations.
Twitter attorney Bradley Wilson argued in court Wednesday that spam counts were just an estimate, backed by regulatory disclosures that underscored the imprecise nature of the counts.
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“We have an inherently subjective assessment,” Wilson said. “Twitter made a projection, and it was very honest that that’s what it did.”
He also noted that some of Musk’s team are asking to “explicitly seek private data,” which the company was unwilling to give away, including users’ IP addresses, phone numbers and information about users’ locations.
The hearing opened on Wednesday with Spiro arguing that Twitter flip-flopped on its rationale for not providing data to Musk’s team, data he says is important to figuring out what’s actually going on at the social media company.
“There’s this back and forth, and every single time the target posts seem to move,” Spiro alleged, referring to requests for more data related to spam and bots.
“We’re the potential buyer here and we don’t even know what exists,” Spiro alleged of the data he alleged Twitter is shutting down. – This puts us at a great disadvantage.
He also claimed to have engaged in deception around the user numbers for a long time. He claimed that Twitter’s growth leveled off for years, and that the company changed how it calculated user numbers in 2019 to make it look like there was more growth. Spiro said this underlying deception is one reason the judge should grant their request for more data.
Twitter has said it invented the new way of calculating growth, in 2019, to give a clearer picture of the company’s status to investors.
Lawmakers are investigating Twitter’s security chief’s whistleblower allegations
Addressing allegations directly from Zatko’s complaint, Spiro claimed Twitter shut down a key tool, internally called ROPO, for “read-only phone,” blocking an account from tweeting until a user can prove it’s linked to a real person. He claimed that a top executive was planning to shut it down completely. Posten has previously reported that ROPO was never shut down and that the manager proposed an overhaul, not a closure.
Wilson argued against handing over private data to Musk’s team, citing user privacy concerns and the fear of such information “falling into the wrong hands.”
He specifically pointed to Musk as a problem. Twitter would lose control of the data and anonymous speakers could be banned, as well as private messages exposed.
“This is someone who has publicly mocked Twitter. Who has insinuated that this lawsuit would be used as a means to publicize Twitter’s internal data. And who recently and publicly confirmed that if he is able to get out of the contract he signed, his plan is to start a competing business,” Wilson added.