The Search for Dirt on the Twitter Whistle-Blower

The Search for Dirt on the Twitter Whistle-Blower

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On August 23rd, a Slack chat for former employees of the payments company Stripe began filling with accounts of strange queries about an ex-colleague. “I’m getting inundated with paid interview requests,” one of the former employees, Dan Foster, wrote. Another, Marty Wasserman, later posted that he’d received a similar message via e-mail. “Hi Marty, Hope you’re having a great week!” the message read. “I’m currently working on a project regarding leadership in tech, and my client is hoping to speak to an experienced professional about a particular individual you may have worked with.” The message requested a “45-60 minute compensated phone consultation.” Wasserman was suspicious of the timing. “Preeeettyy sure this is regarding Mudge,” he wrote, pasting it in the Slack chat with his former colleagues. “Hard pass.”

Hours earlier, CNN and the Washington Post had reported that Twitter’s former head of security, Peiter (Mudge) Zatko, had filed a whistle-blower disclosure to federal agencies, accusing the social-media platform of reckless security practices. Zatko’s sweeping claims, if proven, could aid Elon Musk in his attempt to terminate his forty-four-billion-dollar agreement to acquire Twitter, a legal fight with implications of billions of dollars for investors. The dozens of e-mails and LinkedIn messages received by people in Zatko’s professional orbit appeared to be mostly from research-and-advisory companies, part of a burgeoning industry whose clients include investment firms and individuals jockeying for financial advantage through information. At least six research outfits—Gerson Lehrman Group (G.L.G.), AlphaSights, Mosaic Research Management, Ridgetop Research, Coleman Research Group, and Guidepoint—approached former colleagues of Zatko’s at Stripe, Google, and the Pentagon research agency DARPA. All offered to pay for information, sometimes noting that the compensation would be high or apparently unrestricted. At least two investment firms, Farallon Capital Management L.L.C. and Pentwater Capital Management L.P., also sought information from individuals close to Zatko.

An associate at AlphaSights reached out to Wasserman via e-mail. She did not identify her firm’s client, but she wrote that they wanted to understand Zatko’s “personality, leadership style, validity and history.” She added, “We compensate well because we know this is a difficult and confusing ask at first.” Another Stripe veteran, Jaclyn Schoof, wrote to the Slack group that she had received the same offer from AlphaSights. “They said they didn’t care how much it would cost them… seems really weird,” she said. A fourth member of the group, Niels Provos, who had worked with Zatko at Google and was later persuaded by him to fill his role at Stripe, received offers of payment from AlphaSights, as well as from two other firms, Farallon and Mosaic. “They were happy to pay $1000/hr when I was fishing for more information,” he wrote, of Farallon’s consultant. (A spokesperson for Farallon said that payment was discussed only after Provos broached the subject.)

The consultant told Provos that its analysts were assessing Zatko’s “personality professionally and socially,” his “strengths and weaknesses,” “motives for his whistle-blower complaint and any similar past complaints,” his “need for attention,” and whether he was a “zealot or ideologue,” “conspiratorial,” or “vengeful.” She also said they were interested in Zatko’s “view of Elon Musk and Musk’s bid for Twitter.” G.L.G. included links to detailed sets of questions discussing Zatko and Twitter’s C.E.O., Parag Agrawal. “In regards to Peiter Zatko, can you discuss thoughts on recent news with Peiter, what he did, why he was fired from TWTR?” read one of G.L.G.’s questions.

The firms cast a wide net. Some of the recipients, such as Wasserman, knew Zatko well, but others, including Foster, had never met him. More than a dozen of the people who received the messages told me that they found them unusual, compared with other research inquiries, because of their aggressiveness, persistence, or focus on an individual, as opposed to a product or a technology. One of the messages from G.L.G. suggested that the information was intended for an investment firm, Davidson Kempner Capital Management L.P. (A source close to G.L.G. told me that it represents multiple clients with an interest in Zatko but has no connection to Twitter and added that compensation for experts is standard.) Farallon, an investment firm rather than an expert network, identified itself in its inquiries. The other companies declined to identify their clients, though at least one told recipients that they were working on behalf of an unnamed hedge fund.

As the inquiries proliferated, the group of ex-Stripe employees began to believe, Wasserman told me, “that multiple different sources, multiple different people, multiple different companies, were all basically trying to dig up dirt on Mudge, all seemingly at the same time.” The firms, Provos surmised, were “trying to get information that could further discredit Mudge,” an effort that “seemed incredibly shady.” Jonathan Kaltwasser, Stripe’s former chief information security officer and a member of the Slack group, quickly alerted Zatko.

“My family and I are disturbed by what appears to be a campaign to approach our friends and former colleagues under apparently false pretenses with offers of money in exchange for information about us,” Zatko told me. “These tactics should be beneath whoever is behind them.” On Tuesday, Zatko is expected to testify before Congress and may reveal new details about what he has said are glaring data-security lapses by Twitter. He is also expected to play a key role in a trial set to begin next month in a Delaware courtroom, during which Musk will seek to be released from his agreement to acquire Twitter. Musk’s attorneys have subpoenaed Zatko, and a judge ruled last week that Musk could amend his countersuit to include Zatko’s allegations. A Twitter spokesperson, Rebecca Hahn, told me, “We look forward to presenting our case in Court beginning on October 17th and intend to close the transaction on the price and terms agreed upon with Mr. Musk.”

Sources close to three of the firms—Farallon, Mosaic, and G.L.G.—suggested that they were simply trying to obtain information about Zatko to guide stock trades involving Twitter and maximize profits. A person familiar with G.L.G.’s business said the outreach was “an attempt to assess the credibility of the allegations” and meant “to better inform investment decisions.” A spokesperson for AlphaSights said that, “as a matter of policy and contractual obligations, we do not disclose the identity of our clients.” Hahn, the Twitter spokesperson, told me, “We have no role in nor did we commission expert networks research regarding Mr. Zatko.” Two members of Musk’s team, who asked not to be named, owing to the sensitivity of the ongoing litigation, said that they also had no connection to the inquiries. “There’s a lot of hedge funds currently betting that the deal flows. And so they’re doing everything they possibly can to undermine that not happening,” one of them told me. “It’s obviously wrong. You can’t discredit a witness, as opposed to listening to what he has to say and taking seriously these security threats. . . . That should be the priority, not making a buck.”

Almost all of the inquiries that The New Yorker was able to document came from “expert networks,” enterprises that recruit specialists from various fields, like Zatko’s former colleagues, to share their knowledge with Wall Street investment firms and other companies. The firms deployed to uncover information about Zatko span the globe. According to its Web site, AlphaSights employs more than a thousand people, in nine cities around the world. Ridgetop, Mosaic, and Guidepoint are all New York-based firms of varying sizes. Coleman Research, a subsidiary of a Japanese company, maintains a network of four hundred and sixty thousand experts, while G.L.G.’s Web site claims a network of a million experts. The investment firm Farallon was founded in 1986 by the businessman and liberal activist Tom Steyer, who sought the Democratic nomination for President in 2020, and now maintains offices worldwide. Pentwater, another investment firm, which contacted one of Zatko’s attorneys seeking information, is one of Twitter’s ten largest shareholders.

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