After Elon Musk took charge of Twitter, one former employee of this micro-blogging platform decided to tell the world what “unethical thing” he was once asked to build. Steve Krenzel’s claims are startling, especially because it’s related to user privacy.
To be fair, Krenzel’s story, shared as a thread on Twitter, has nothing to do with Musk and his takeover of the platform – as stormy as it has been.
Krenzel, a former software engineer at Twitter, actually recalls an incident that happened “sometime between 2015 and 2016,” when Dick Costolo had just left the board of the company, and Jack Dorsey came in as interim Chief Executive Officer.
“With Twitter's change in ownership last week, I'm probably in the clear to talk about the most unethical thing I was asked to build while working at Twitter,” Krenzel wrote in a lengthy thread.
According to Krenzel, he and his team were asked – not by higher-ups at Twitter, but by representatives of a large telecommunications company – to track “when users leave their house, their commute to work, and everywhere they go throughout the day.”
A suspicious request
Krenze said he was known as the mobile logs guy because he was trying to improve the way Twitter mobile app uploaded logs. Like most mobile apps, Twitter logs everything users do – “every swipe, tap, edit, delay, etc.”
This is done for the purposes of debugging, metrics, and experiments – definitely not for the data to be later sold to third parties. But Krenzel says one large telecommunications firm wanted precisely that – even though the discussions were innocuous enough at first.
Krenzel said he was once pulled into a sales conversation. “A large telco wanted to pay us to log signal strength data in North America and send it to them,” he said.
He then worked with data science to find a granularity that would preserve the anonymity of users. “When we sent this data to the telco they said the data was useless. They switched their request and said they want to be able to tell how many of our users are entering their competitors’ stores,” Krenzel said in his thread.
That alone seemed sketchy. But the red flag finally showed when Krenzel was asked to the telecommunications company’s headquarters and “figure out exactly what they want.”
As Krenzel describes it, he met with “a Director,” who “came in huffing and puffing” and said, “We should know when users leave their house, their commute to work, and everywhere they go throughout the day. Anything less is useless. We get a lot more than that from other tech companies.”
Dorsey didn’t like it: how about Musk?
The former Twitter employee said he rejected the absurd request right away. “There was no universe where I was going to help sell granular identifiable user location data,” he said.
However, Krenzel claimed he was then told by Twitter’s legal team that the request was fine and did not violate the user terms of service.
Unsurprisingly, Krenzel eventually resigned from Twitter – as did half of his team. He remembers that already back in 2015 or 2016, the platform “was no longer a place to do good work.”
However, he also said that, before quitting, he had emailed Twitter’s CEO Dorsey and received a prompt response.
“To his credit, he responded quickly with something to the effect of ‘Let me look into that and make sure there isn’t a misunderstanding. It doesn’t seem right. We wouldn’t want to do that,’” Krenzel wrote.
“As far as I know, the project actually got canned. Jack genuinely didn’t like it. I don’t know if this mindset will hold true with the new owner of Twitter though. I would assume Elon (Musk) will do far worse things with the data.”
History of missteps
Twitter actually has a track record of violations when it comes to guarding user data, and nowadays, when users hear Musk’s plans for turning the platform into an “everything app,” these will surely be remembered.
For example, after investigations by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DoJ), Twitter was fined $150 million for continuously misusing user data over six years.
The platform asked for users’ phone numbers and email addresses on the grounds of them being necessary for account security before turning around and selling the information to third-party marketers.
The said settlement may also discourage the new owner from any potential attempts to manipulate user data, as the FTC regularly audits Twitter and probes how the company earns revenue.
"Under the terms of the settlement, Twitter will be barred for 20 years from misleading consumers about the extent to which it protects the security, privacy, and confidentiality of nonpublic consumer information, including the measures it takes to prevent unauthorized access to nonpublic information and honor the privacy choices made by consumers," the FTC wrote of the settlement.
This means that Musk, who has already laid off half of Twitter’s workforce, will simply be forced to work with the FTC and its auditors for the next two decades.
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