In a televised interview with Tucker Carlson, Elon Musk revealed that all unencrypted Twitter data was regularly subject to government surveillance under the previous ownership.
The comments were made as part of a rapid-fire interview that did not devote more than several minutes to any one topic, so Musk’s seeming bombshell revelation left a lot of unanswered questions. Musk has yet to clarify much of what he said in the interview, instead focusing his tweets in recent days on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch.
Musk implies world governments had free access to Twitter data under prior ownership
The government surveillance claim came early in the interview, which aired on Carlson’s nightly Fox News show on April 17. Following up on Musk’s comments on the acquisition of the company, Carlson asked if he had been shocked to learn upon taking the CEO mantle that US intelligence agencies had influence on the company’s internal operations. This question likely referred to material from the “Twitter Files” that implies secret back channels between Twitter executives and government agencies were set up to facilitate requests to suppress certain content or even investigate and ban particular accounts. However, Musk’s answer implies something even beyond the scope of what has appeared in the Twitter Files thus far.
Musk replied that his mind was blown by the degree to which “various government agencies” had “full access to everything on Twitter.” Carlson immediately followed up by asking if that included private direct messages (DMs), which Musk affirmed. Musk then implied that if any Twitter data was not encrypted, including DMs, it was potentially subject to government surveillance.
This particular segment of the interview concluded with Musk revealing that an end-to-end encryption feature for Twitter DMs is in the works, and that users will be able to toggle it on or off for particular messages. The interview moved on to the next topic without clarification of exactly what foreign governments may have had access to Twitter data, or the circumstances under which US agencies were accessing user DMs (or if it was done in an extrajudicial manner).
Former Twitter owner Jack Dorsey has not commented on the government surveillance allegations as of yet, and has not tweeted at all since January 31. Former CEO Parag Agrawal also has yet to comment, and may not provide one any time soon as he has recently filed a lawsuit against the company seeking reimbursement for $1 million in legal fees.
Clarification needed on government surveillance, but claims track with whistleblower and Twitter Files revelations
There is at least one prior thread of information that could shed some light on the prospect of foreign government surveillance. Twitter has had known ongoing issues for years with finding intelligence agents in positions in the company that provided them with access to sensitive data. In 2019, two former employees were charged with digging through user accounts to find information on dissidents of interest to the Saudi Arabian government, with one convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in 2022. And former head of cybersecurity Peiter “Mudge” Zatko has also recently claimed that foreign governments maintain access to Twitter data via other employee moles, including at least one Chinese intelligence agent.
It is unclear how much of this domestic government surveillance that Musk refers to involves elements not already outlined in the Twitter Files reporting. These stories began rolling out in early December 2022 from a number of different independent journalists, and have described a number of government interventions and secretive access to Twitter data that Musk’s charges might be addressing. This could include alleged pressure by the FBI to suppress stories about potentially incriminating materials found on a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, and to censor or ban the accounts of plainly satirical users making jokes related to voter fraud.
In terms of direct access to user’s private Twitter data, the files also outline a program that allowed the government to take a more direct hand in moderating tweets about COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic. However, nothing in the Twitter Files thus far directly indicates that the government could simply browse user DMs or accounts without some form of due legal process in place.
Platform transparency has actually taken a step backward in several ways during Musk’s tenure, one of which is the company’s shutdown of regular reports on government requests for Twitter data. For the past decade, the platform published regular summaries of these sorts of requests, something that could provide an indicator of targeted government surveillance taking place. However, Musk quickly opted to end these reports, and it is unclear if there is any plan to bring them back given the company’s new cut-to-the-bone operating style.