The Twitter Whistleblower report - how bad was Twitter, really?

Prompted by a post by everyone's favourite Portugal-based squirrel-torturing blogger, Tim Worstall, I thought I'd dive into the practical implications of all the (frankly, horrendous) technical, security and privacy problems that Twitter was identified as having before Elon Musk rocked up as owner and CEO.

Usual disclaimer: I'm going by the reports. Reality might be different. I cite where I can.

For background: both USA and European authorities take a dim view of corporate access to, and usage of, individual user data. Remember the European "ePrivacy Directive"? Also known as the "'f+ck these annoying cookie pop-ups' law"... Governments in both Europe and the USA are keenly interested in companies tracking individual users' activities, though my personal opinion is that they're just jealous; they'd like to do it too, but they're just not competent. Anyway, a company doing individual tracking at large scale for profit - Twitter, Google, YouTube, Meta, Amazon - attracts their attention, and their laws.


Let's talk about security - and, more importantly, access to secure data. A fundamental principle of security is "least privilege" - everyone should have the smallest set of access privileges to be able to do their job. You could argue that 5000+ people in Twitter "need" to be able to change things in production at some point to do their jobs, but they certainly don't "need" to have always-on, cross-production access. Not least, because someone running a command they found on an internal playbook as an experiment, could easily break a large chunk of the service. But don't rely on me, ask their job candidates:

Twitter's practice was a huge red flag for job candidates, who universally expressed disbelief. One Vice President of Information Technology [his current role, not the target role] considered withdrawing his application on the (accurate) rationale that Twitter's lack of basic engineering hygiene in their arrangement presaged major headaches.
Hire that guy.

Certainly, every company is far from perfect in this area, but those with regulators are continually seeking to narrow the number of people with access, and the scope of access those people have. Twitter pre-Musk clearly did not give a crap about the count and scope of access. One can only imagine why; were they, for instance, relying on a large base of pre-approved employees to intercept and downgrade/block opinions outside the mainstream? How would we tell if this were not the case? Can Twitter show that they were engaged in a systematic reduction of number and scope of access to production? If not, who will be held to account?


Control is one thing - but at least, if a human performs an action in the production environment (change, or query), that action should at least be logged, so future audit can see what happened. This is not a high bar, but was apparently too high for pre-2022 Twitter:

There was no logging of who went into the production environment or what they did.
To make clear the implications: in general, there was no way of finding out who queried (for their own purposes) or changed (deleted posts, down-rated users, etc) the production environment at any particular time. "Why did [event] happen?" "Beats the hell out of me, someone probably changed something." "Who? When?" "No idea."

This is particularly interesting because Twitter's Chief Information Security Officer - who resigned post-Musk - was also their former head of privacy engineering, and before that, apparently, global lead of privacy technology at Google. One could only imagine what that implies.


There is also a wide range of engineering issues. Data integrity (not losing user-entered data) was obviously a critical issue, but Twitter had been aware for a while that they teetered on the edge of a catastrophic production data loss:

even a temporary but overlapping outage of a small number of datacenters would likely [my italics] result in the service going offline for weeks, months, or permanently.
This is not quite as bad as it first seems. After a year or so in operation, companies have a fairly good idea what happens with a datacenter outage - because they're more frequent than you imagine. Say, Henry the intern accidently leans against the Big Red Button on the datacenter floor, that cuts power to everywhere. Or you do a generator test, only to discover that a family of endangered hawks have made their nest in the generator housing for Floor 2... So you get used to (relatively) small-scale interruptions.

If you want to run a global service, though, you need to be able to tolerate single site outages as routine, and multiple site outages (which turn out to be inevitable) have to be managed within the general bounds of your service's promised availability - and latency, and data availability. Even if all your physical locations are very separate, there will inevitably be common cause failures - not least, when you're pushing binary or config changes to them. So, don't wait for these events to sneak up on you - rather, anticipate them.

This means that you have to plan for, and practice these events. If you're not doing so, than a) it will be obvious to anyone asking questions in this area, and b) when things inevitably do run off the rails, there will be bits of burning infrastructure scattered everywhere, around the highly-paid morons who are busy writing memos to cover their asses: "how could we have foreseen this particular event? Clearly, it wasn't our fault, but pay us 20% extra and we might catch or mitigate the next such event."

Go looking for those people. Fire them, and throw them into a den of hungry pigs.

Leaving the doors open

By far the most horrific aspect, however, was the general relaxed attitude about government agencies - and heaven only knows what other NGOs, cabals, and individuals - having under-the-table access to Twitter's data. Just the tolerance of user-installed spyware on privileged devices would be enough for any sane security engineer to be tearing out their hair, but actually letting in individuals known to be employed by foreign - and even domestic - governments for the purposes of obtaining intelligence information, and potentially affecting the flow of information to their and other countries... one is lost for words.

At some stage, Twitter had to either grow up, or close down. Under Dorsey's crew, the latter was inevitable - and likely not far away. It's still too early to tell if Musk can get them to option 1, but there's still hope.

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