Peter "Mudge" Zatko: wild card in Musk clash with Twitter

Peter “Mudge” Zatko: wild card in Musk clash with Twitter

Tesla CEO Elon Musk. — © AFP/File Vakil Kokhsar


Respected in cybersecurity circles, former head of Twitter security Pieter “Madge” Zatko is the wild card in Elon Musk’s legal gambit to derail a $44 billion deal to buy the social network.

Whistleblower Zatko’s complaint about “extreme, egregious shortcomings” in Twitter’s defenses against hackers and “meager anti-spam efforts” plays a role in Musk’s quest to convince the judge he was duped when he forced his unsolicited offer on the company.

Twitter dismissed the 51-year-old Zatko’s complaint as baseless and vowed to prove he did nothing wrong in the October trial in a Delaware court.

If the court focuses on the fact that the world’s richest man refused to collect the facts normally associated with mergers of large companies, Zatko’s charges could prove moot.

On Tuesday, he is due to testify before a US Senate committee investigating whether Twitter’s security practices were dangerously lax.

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

This time, he will be asked to elaborate on his allegations that Twitter has covered up flaws in its security, as well as cracking down on accounts run by spammers or software rather than real users.

Musk cited the number of fake Twitter accounts as one of the reasons he justified pulling out of the buyout deal he made in April.

“Once both parties enter court, it will be a high-risk, high-reward scenario for both parties, with the main variable X now being whistleblower Zatko claims,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a note to investors.

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

If Twitter wins in court, the judge could order Tesla’s CEO to pay the company billions of dollars or even complete the purchase.

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

– “Big problems” –

“If Madge says Twitter has a cybersecurity problem, Twitter has a big problem,” said cybersecurity firm Vectra’s CTO Aaron Turner, who says he’s known Zatko since the 1980s.

The son of scientists, Zatko grew up in the US states of Alabama and Pennsylvania, his hobbies were music and software.

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

“This is the first time the US government has publicly mentioned ‘hackers’ in a positive context,” Zatko said in a 2019 tweet marking the anniversary of the testimony.

Zatko has worked at Google and the online payment company Stripe, as well as at the Pentagon’s research division DARPA.

Twitter founder and former head Jack Dorsey hired Zatko in July 2020 after a spectacular hack of celebrity accounts and political figures including Barack Obama, Musk and Kim Kardashian.

President Joe Biden’s team offered Zatko the position of director of White House security early last year, but he turned down the position, believing he still had a job at Twitter, his lawyers said.

-House of cards? –

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

Zatko’s lawyers dismissed Twitter’s lawsuit, saying instead that he was fired after a run-in with senior management who refused to acknowledge his concerns about the platform’s security.

“Mr. Zatko put his career on the line out of concern for Twitter users, the public and company shareholders,” his lawyers said.

Andrew Hay, COO of cybersecurity consulting firm Lares, said that “Those who know Mudge in the industry know that his intentions have historically been noble, impartial and for the betterment of the world.”

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

Musk’s lawyers are “trying to prove that Twitter was trying to sell him a house of cards,” but the security flaws must be “really serious,” said UC Berkeley Law School professor Adam Badawi.

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