Elon Musk Wanted Twitter To Encrypt Messages. His New Safety Chief Says It’s On Hold.

Elon Musk Wanted Twitter To Encrypt Messages. His New Safety Chief Says It’s On Hold.

End-to-end encryption isn’t launching anytime soon, Twitter’s new trust and safety lead tells Forbes. Senator Ron Wyden says it would be a “huge step back” if encryption isn’t rolled out, after Musk had offered encouraging signs DMs were soon going to be protected.


Before his official takeover of Twitter, in April, Elon Musk declared that the company should roll out end-to-end encrypted messages, “so no one can spy on or hack your messages.”

There was some more hope for the pro-encryption community when mobile security researcher Jane Manchun Wong discovered Twitter had been testing out the Signal protocol, used by the eponymous app and WhatsApp to secure comms (she has since left Twitter because of mass trolling). Musk, this time as Twitter CEO, even responded with a wink emoji.

But, according to new trust and safety lead Ella Irwin, there are no immediate plans to roll out encrypted messages in Twitter DMs. Indeed, there’s no guarantee it will ever be deployed, she told Forbes in an interview from Twitter’s San Francisco HQ on Tuesday.

The company currently relies on being able to see into users’ direct messages to scan for things like child exploitation material, Irwin said. Since Musk arrived, she claimed the team has been given license to be more aggressive in hunting down child exploitation on Twitter (something experts have questioned), but encrypted messages would make that task more difficult.

“Users simply cannot trust the safety of their private messages from crooks, foreign governments and even Twitter’s CEO . . . ”

Advertisement
Senator Ron Wyden

“Encryption makes the job harder in general in the space, so we do need to think through that before we move to encryption,” she said. While end-to-end encrypted DMs is a “strong consideration,” Irwin said her team is still in conversations with the wider Twitter enterprise to find the balance between Musk’s desire to prioritize safety on the platform and his eagerness to push out encryption. “It will delay the launch of things if we need to do more to protect users. . . . I’m not going to say we have this all solved and we’re ready to go on encrypted DMs.”

That stance has disappointed those who were hoping Musk would quickly move to protect Twitter direct messages. Senator Ron Wyden, who was calling for Twitter encryption when founder Jack Dorsey was still CEO, said if the added protection had now been kiboshed, it was “a huge step back for users’ privacy and security.”

“Users simply cannot trust the safety of their private messages from crooks, foreign governments and even Twitter’s CEO, if the company insists on keeping copies of everything you say in private,” Senator Wyden said.

Earlier this week, fresh concerns were raised over how Musk himself might leverage users’ supposedly private messages. They followed the release by reporter Matt Taibbi of the “Twitter files,” which included internal email exchanges about the handling of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden. It appeared Musk was the one doing the leaking. Security researcher John Scott-Railton subsequently tweeted concerns about Musk’s access to DMs, claiming that he could use them to wield political influence. “Do we trust him not to stick his hand in the cookie jar?” Other security experts had previously suggested users delete their DMs in light of the chaotic takeover and the loss of security and privacy leadership.

Twitter has long toyed with the idea of rolling out a Signal-like messaging system. Former Twitter engineer Brandon Carpenter had coded a prototype of Signal-encrypted Twitter DMs before he left in May. “It was later removed from the codebase. . . . I have a lot of confidence in that code and am glad that it is being used as a starting point. I hope they continue to build on it,” he told Forbes.

Twitter purging accounts

Irwin and her slimmed-down safety team are in an awkward moment. Critics had claimed Twitter didn’t move fast enough to counter child abuse before Musk arrived, and since he took over it has been accused of putting children in danger by firing trust and safety staff, while others have resigned over issues with the new leadership. Irwin said Twitter is now relying more on automation to detect and remove accounts, adding that her team will let tech suspend accounts first and, if the code got it wrong, a human will reinstate them.

After Forbesfound child sexual abuse material (CSAM) traders were continuing to avoid Twitter’s crackdown on hashtags being used by pedophiles, the company went on an account purge, removing 55,000 in the last week, according to Irwin’s latest data.

She said that prior to Musk’s insistence on cleaning up Twitter, “that rate of takedown is more equivalent to what we would have taken down over a six-month period.” Twitter’s most recent transparency report shows that while the new system may be suspending accounts at a faster rate, in the first six months of 2021, the old team removed an average of 100,000 accounts a month linked to child sexual abuse. Irwin clarified that, having only joined earlier this year, she was referring to what she had seen in 2022. She said the company would be releasing data later this week on child safety-related takedowns. It will show how the last week saw more takedowns than any month over the last half year, she claimed.

Irwin said that new technological measures have been introduced in recent weeks to detect offending accounts. They include the launch of new data models that look for suspicious “signals,” such as search patterns and interaction with tweets offering illegal content.

Yet some in the child safety industry believe neither such technological improvements nor mass takedowns have done much to counter the problem. Describing claims that Musk’s Twitter has already done much to eradicate CSAM as “misinformation,” former New Zealand cop Joe Gray said he had not seen any notable impact. Offenders are simply changing the hashtags and search terms, said Gray, who now tracks CSAM across the Web at Pathfinder Labs, a contractor that helps police and private industry with child abuse investigations. “Twitter is not at a point yet where the offenders have been disrupted enough that they want to move,” Gray added.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *