Trump's Twitter Hijack and the Internet's Fragile Trust
We’ve turned our digital lives over to people we’ve never met.
The Internet is made up of giant undersea cables, billion dollar conglomerates, and countless whirring servers, but a more fragile element underpins much of it: trust.
Inside the companies and organizations that power our unbridled connectivity are people with all of the same messy motivations and drives as anyone else. Disgust, jealousy, admiration. And we, as users, have trusted those people with a bevvy of personal information, as well as access to accounts central to our lives.
That oft-forgotten reality was highlighted on Thursday when a Twitter worker attempted to delete President Trump’s account. The outage was only temporary and brief, but the point stands: a single person, not a system, decided to cut-off possibly the most high profile Twitter user on the planet. And everyone using Twitter or any other online service should be reminded of the risk to their own accounts or secrets posed by the unknown individuals we trust with them.
We provide social media and other Internet companies with an untold amount of personal data. Our Internet Protocol addresses, showing where we are connecting from; perhaps our physical address or other contact information, and, especially in social media’s case, our quasi-private messages between friends, colleagues, and random people. Although the data collected and access is obviously going to vary widely between different companies, it would be fanciful to assume that your data is totally safe from all workers. In the Trump case, The New York Times reports a contractor deleted the President’s account, bringing up even more issues of who outside the company may have access to such powers.
And that’s not the only recent example involving Twitter specifically. As The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill reported last month, Twitter abuse reports may be handled more quickly if they come from a user that the company’s employees like. Recently a Twitter employee reached out to me personally, via email, when I deleted all of my tweets, (as I do periodically), just to check whether everything was okay.
The problem is hardly unique to Twitter. Facebook employs teams of people who monitor the social network for “objectionable” content—but oddly left standing inflammatory Kremlin-backed posts inciting violence and political unrest in the days leading up to the 2016 election.
In 2014 Josh Mohrer, Uber’s New York manager, was disciplined for abusing the ridesharing company’s so-called “God Mode” to track a journalist. This feature allows Uber employees to monitor customer activity, including where a user asks to be picked up, obviously revealing their location.
Beyond just everyday users, this sort of activity bleeds over into issues such as source protection for journalists—it would probably be unwise for a journalist to interview, say, a Twitter employee over the social network’s own direct messages feature, considering someone from the company, at some point, technically may be able to access those communications, even if they are not supposed to.
Although some Silicon Valley staffers—perhaps the security team, for example—will have more access to user data than others, highlighting this risk is not to say it’s a total free for all within Internet companies, where employees can just explore whatever customer details they want without consequence. But clearly any measures designed to stop employee abuse are not foolproof, as Twitter noted on Friday, the company had “implemented safeguards to prevent this from happening again.”
And this isn’t to comment on whether the brief deletion of Trump’s Twitter is in itself good or bad. But it does highlight this broader issue of the faith we invest in companies and bodies holding some of our most precious data—remember, there is a human at the end of that app.