The allegations of spying by former Twitter employees for Saudi Arabia underscore the risks for Silicon Valley firms holding sensitive data which make the platforms ripe for espionage.
The two Saudis and one US citizen allegedly worked together to unmask the ownership details behind dissident Twitter accounts on behalf of the Riyadh government and royal family, according to a federal indictment.
Analysts say the incident shows how massive databases held by Silicon Valley giants can be juicy targets for intelligence agencies, which can often apply pressure to company insiders.
“The Twitter case shows how data is not only an asset but a liability for companies,” said Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy at the human rights group Freedom House.
“For companies collecting massive amounts of data, the challenge is how to keep it secure not only from hackers, but from rogue employees.”
Shahbaz said platforms such as Twitter and Facebook remain important tools for human rights activists, but that users should be aware of potential for data leaks — both in their countries, and from insiders.
“It’s been alarming to see how governments using tactics to exploit the inherent weaknesses of the internet… go after people expressing dissent,” he said.
“It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game between users and very well-resourced governments.”
Bruce Schneier, a security researcher and fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, said it is not surprising to see governments targeting databases of tech platforms.
“We all assume it happens a lot. But this (prosecution) rarely comes up,” Schneier said.
No match for Russia
Schneier said there have long been fears about Chinese or Russian insiders pressured to introduce vulnerabilities in major software platforms, and that companies may be ill-equipped to thwart those efforts.
“The government of Russia versus Twitter is not a fair fight,” he said. “It’s hard to blame the tech companies.”
Because major tech firms have engineers from all over the world, Schneier said it enables intelligences services to seek out and pressure their expats for espionage purposes.
The case highlights the potential for insider threats, said James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Insider threats go back to biblical times,” he said, noting that the suspects were probably caught because they “did a terrible job of covering their tracks.”
Background checks enough?
According to an indictment unsealed Wednesday, US citizen Ahmad Abouammo and Saudi national Ali Alzabarah were recruited in 2014-2015 to use their positions in Twitter to gain access to private information related to accounts of critics of Riyadh.
Ahmed Almutairi, a marketing official with ties to the royal family, was a critical go-between who arranged contacts, prosecutors said.
Twitter said in a statement it restricts access to sensitive account information “to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.”
But John Dickson, a former US air force information warfare officer who is now with the security consultancy Denim Group, said private companies, even in Silicon Valley, are not equipped to for background checks needed to find potential spies.
“Most employers do cursory background checks for the most obvious stuff such as criminal records or bankruptcy,” he said.
“None of them does any semblance of a background check on nation-state threats.”
Dickson said it remains unclear if the tech platforms are cognizant of the sensitivity of the data they hold, and the draw of that information for intelligence services.
“They are still acting as social media companies,” he said.
“Their default is to get as many connections as possible, and the network effect enhances the platform.”
Shahbaz said the latest case illustrates a need for regulations to require tech platforms to limit how much data they collect and maintain.
“There might be a role for government to play in terms of data privacy legislation,” he said.
“There’s a case for collecting the bare minimum of data from users and allowing users to opt out” of certain kinds of data collection.
He said companies should also be required to inform victims if their data has been compromised “so they can take measures to protect themselves.”
Elon Musk Says He’ll Pay $11 Billion in Taxes in 2021 But Twitter Wants ‘Proof’
Elon Musk took to Twitter to clarify once and for all that he will be paying a whopping $11 billion as taxes this year.
If the number of times Elon Musk could count when someone has asked him to pay the full taxes, he would be a very rich..wait, never mind. The Tesla boss is rich beyond any private individual has been in history, reports said.
Musk has increasingly been facing criticism from many politicians and many others who insist he has not been paying taxes as compared to the profits his companies have been making. On Sunday, the SpaceX CEO took to Twitter to share that he will be paying a whopping $11 billion as taxes.
For those wondering, I will pay over $11 billion in taxes this year— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 20, 2021
But some of the questions did not stop. One person tweeted how they needed to see Musk’s tax returns while yet another asked how much percentage was that of his total income.
A few were, however scathing of the government who thought they will add that amount to their pockets rather than using it for some proper development.
Wow that’s enough to give each person in the world almost $2 million but instead the government will just stick it in their pockets— greg (@greg16676935420) December 20, 2021
Why not $200 billion? Asking for a Senator— litquidity (@litcapital) December 20, 2021
Earlier this week, Democratic US Senator Elizabeth Warren has tweeted to say that Musk should pay taxes and stop “freeloading off everyone else” after Time magazine named him its “person of the year”.
In response, Musk shot four tweets in which he said that the senator reminded him of a friend’s angry mom who yelled at everybody. He tweeted, ““And if you opened your eyes for 2 seconds, you would realize I will pay more taxes than any American in history this year.” “Don’t spend it all at once … oh wait you did already.”
He added further, “You remind me of when I was a kid and my friend’s angry Mom would just randomly yell at everyone for no reason.”
Musk responded by saying that he “will pay more taxes than any American in history this year”. This Twitter exchange left netizens divided as even though many supported Warren and agreed that Musk should pay more taxes, others felt that he was already doing enough.
Musk’s Tesla is worth about $1 trillion. Over the last few weeks, he has sold nearly $14 billion worth of Tesla shares.
The Tesla boss has been pushing for his colonize Mars agenda for years now, and has made it very clear in some occasions that he would rather spend the money on putting humanity on the red planet, than pay his taxes. “My plan,” the SpaceX founder tweeted about his fortune, “is to use the money to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness.”
Twitter Admits Policy ‘Errors’ After Far-Right Abuse Its New Rules of Posting Pictures
Twitter’s new picture permission policy was aimed at combating online abuse, but US activists and researchers said Friday that far-right backers have employed it to protect themselves from scrutiny and to harass opponents.
Even the social network admitted the rollout of the rules, which say anyone can ask Twitter to take down images of themselves posted without their consent, was marred by malicious reports and its teams’ own errors.
It was just the kind of trouble anti-racism advocates worried was coming after the policy was announced this week.
“Anyone with a Twitter account should be reporting doxxing posts from the following accounts,” the message said, with a list of dozens of Twitter handles.
Gwen Snyder, an organizer and researcher in Philadelphia, said her account was blocked this week after a report to Twitter about a series of 2019 photos she said showed a local political candidate at a march organized by extreme-right group Proud Boys.
Rather than go through an appeal with Twitter she opted to delete the images and alert others to what was happening.
“Twitter moving to eliminate (my) work from their platform is incredibly dangerous and is going to enable and embolden fascists,” she told AFP.
But the rules don’t apply to “public figures or individuals when media and accompanying Tweets are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse.”
By Friday, Twitter noted the roll out had been rough: “We became aware of a significant amount of coordinated and malicious reports, and unfortunately, our enforcement teams made several errors.”
“We’ve corrected those errors and are undergoing an internal review to make certain that this policy is used as intended,” the firm added.
Jack Dorsey Post Twitter Is Chasing His Crypto, Fintech Dream
At a packed Miami conference in June, Jack Dorsey, mused in front of thousands of attendees about where his real passion lay: “If I weren’t at Square or Twitter, I’d be working on Bitcoin.”
On Monday, Dorsey made good on one part of that, announcing he would leave Twitter for the second time, handing the CEO position to a 10-year veteran at the firm. The 45-year-old entrepreneur, who is often described as an enigma with varied interests from meditation to yoga to fashion design, plans to pursue his passion which include focusing on running Square and doing more philanthropic work, according to a source familiar with his plan.
Well before the surprise news, Dorsey had laid the groundwork for his next chapter, seeding both companies with cryptocurrency-related projects.
Underlying Dorsey’s broader vision is the principle of “decentralisation,” or the idea that technology and finance should not be concentrated among a handful of gatekeepers, as it is now, but should, instead, be steered by the hands of the many, either people or entities.
The concept has played out at Square, which has built a division devoted to working on projects and awarding grants with the aim of growing Bitcoin’s popularity globally. Bitcoin price in India stood at Rs. 44.52 lakh as of 12:50pm IST on December 1.
Dorsey has been a longtime proponent of Bitcoin, and the appeal is that the cryptocurrency will allow for private and secure transactions with the value of Bitcoin unrelated to any government.
The idea has also underpinned new projects at Twitter, where Dorsey tapped a top lieutenant – and now the company’s new CEO Parag Agrawal – to oversee a team that is attempting to construct a decentralised social media protocol, which will allow different social platforms to connect with one another, similar to the way email providers operate.
The project called Bluesky will aim to allow users control over the types of content they see online, removing the “burden” on companies like Twitter to enforce a global policy to fight abuse or misleading information, Dorsey said in 2019 when he announced Bluesky.
Bitcoin has also figured prominently at both of his companies. Square became one of the first public companies to own Bitcoin assets on its balance sheet, having invested $220 million (roughly Rs. 1,650 crore) in the cryptocurrency.
In August, Square created a new business unit called TBD to focus on Bitcoin. The company is also planning to build a hardware wallet for Bitcoin, a Bitcoin mining system, as well as a decentralised Bitcoin exchange.
Twitter allows users to tip their favourite content creators with Bitcoin and has been testing integrations with non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a type of digital asset that allows people to collect unique digital art.
Analysts see the transition as a positive signal for Square, the fintech platform he co-founded in 2009. Square’s core Cash App, after a bull run in its share in 2020, has experienced slower growth in the most recent quarter. It is also trying to digest the $29 billion (roughly Rs. 2,17,240 crore) acquisition of Buy Now Pay Later provider Afterpay, its largest acquisition ever.
But these ambitions will not pay off until years from now, analysts cautioned.
“The blockchain platform they’re trying to develop is great but also fraught with technical challenges and difficult to scale for consumers. I think he’ll focus more on Square and crypto will be part of that,” said Christopher Brendler, an analyst at DA Davidson.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Interested in cryptocurrency? We discuss all things crypto with WazirX CEO Nischal Shetty and WeekendInvesting founder Alok Jain on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.
Cryptocurrency is an unregulated digital currency, not a legal tender and subject to market risks. The information provided in the article is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, trading advice or any other advice or recommendation of any sort offered or endorsed by NDTV. NDTV shall not be responsible for any loss arising from any investment based on any perceived recommendation, forecast or any other information contained in the article.
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