Tuesday 17 November 2020 3:25 pm

Mudge: Why has Twitter just hired a world-famous hacker?

Twitter may have been awash with excitement about its new disappearing Fleets service, but behind the scenes there were other clandestine matters underway today.

The social media platform said it had hired Mudge, one of the world’s best-regarded hackers, to the new position of head of security.

The appointment comes at a crucial time for Jack Dorsey’s tech giant. But who is Mudge and why does Twitter need him?

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Who is Mudge?

Mudge is the hacker handle of Peiter Zatko, a colourful American programmer and network security expert who has established a reputation as one of the world’s most capable hackers.

Zatko rose to prominence in the 1990s as a member of the high-profile hacker collectives Cult of the Dead Cow and L0pht Heavy Industries.

The groups became notorious for releasing hacking tools that enabled people to infiltrate and pirate Microsoft’s Windows software.

At the same time, Zatko was also carrying out classified work for a government contractor.

In 1998 the long-haired cyber wizz appeared alongside fellow hackers in front of US Congress to testify about poor standards of cybersecurity. He later joined a panel of experts advising then-president Bill Clinton on cyber strategy.

Mudge completed a spell overseeing cybersecurity research at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), before joining Google and, most recently, electronic payments unicorn Stripe.

Read more: UK spooks block two cyber attacks per day as hackers exploit Covid-19

Why does Twitter need Mudge?

The appointment comes at a crucial time for Twitter, which is facing questions over its security practices and stringent new regulation in the US and the EU.

In July the social media app fell victim to an embarrassing cyber attack that saw three young hackers — including a 19-year-old Brit from Bognor Regis — seize control of a series of prominent Twitter profiles, including those of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

A year ago, the US also accused two men of spying for Saudi Arabia while they were working at Twitter.

Zatko, who will report directly to boss Jack Dorsey, will take on a broad range of responsibilities, including information security, site integrity and engineering, as well as physical security at the company’s offices.

Mudge told Reuters he will also oversee some elements of platform integrity, which includes responsibility for fighting misinformation on the site.

This comes as Twitter and other tech giants face looming regulation that will crack down on the way they police harmful content and misinformation.

Zatko said he was committed to improving public conversations on Twitter. He cited the example of a new feature that prompts users to comment on a post, rather than just retweeting it, and said a next step could be to force people to understand a long conversation before participating in it.

In a tweet today the hacker said he was “very excited to be joining the executive team at Twitter”.

“I truly believe in the mission of (equitably) serving the public conversation.”