A former Twitter engineer shares the story of when he almost created an ``unethical system''
Elon Musk, the newly appointed CEO of Twitter, has implemented large-scale reforms such as firing half of all employees , and confusion and turmoil are spreading within Twitter. Meanwhile, Steve Krenzel , who works as a software engineer at Twitter, Microsoft, etc., and is the chief engineer at financial technology company Brex at the time of writing, said, ``I was once almost forced to develop an unethical system at Twitter.'' He reveals the 'episodes of time'.
With Twitter's change in ownership last week, I'm probably in the clear to talk about the most unethical thing I was asked to build while working at Twitter.— Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
Around 2015-2016, when Twitter's CEO had just been replaced by Jack Dorsey from Dick Costolo , Twitter was facing management problems, and the threat of Twitter closure was greater than many outsiders thought. It was said to be approaching soon.
To set the stage, this was the 2015-2016 era. @dickc was just ousted, though he was wonderful and made us feel like family. @jack came in as part-time CEO. Twitter had been near death for a while and was desperately trying to find a buyer. Facebook and Google both refused.— Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
At the time, Krenzel was a software engineer working on tasks such as reducing bandwidth, memory usage, and battery consumption to make Twitter easier to use for people in emerging markets.
I worked as a software engineer on a team with a charter to make Twitter work better for people in emerging markets (Brazil, India, Nigeria, etc...). This meant a lot of mobile work. And was mostly non-visual stuff - reducing bandwidth, memory usage, battery consumption.— Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
Krenzel, who was able to significantly reduce mobile bandwidth consumption by improving the way Twitter's mobile app uploads user activity logs, is now recognized as the Twitter app's mobile logging expert. It is said that it has become.
In the app, HTTP responses were compressed, but requests weren't. Logs are highly compressible, so I wired up support to gzip HTTP requests, and tweaked our log ingestion server to handle these.— Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
(That reduced mobile bandwidth by consumption ~40% iirc. It was absurd.)
Meanwhile, Twitter received a request from a major telecommunications company to ``send signal strength data in North America.'' Krenzel, who worked on developing a service that collects and transmits signal strength data by location, found a range where anonymity could be maintained even when combined with other data sources.
My plan was to aggregate signal strength by carrier / by location. I worked with Data Science to find a granularity – minimum area size and minimum distinct users per area – that would preserve anonymity even when combined with other sources of data (differential privacy).— Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
However, the telecommunications company expressed dissatisfaction, saying, ``This data is useless,'' and this time, it said, ``I want to know whether users have entered a competitor's store.'' Although Krenzel implemented the requested features in a way that respected privacy, carriers were still unhappy. So Krenzel had a meeting with the director of the telecommunications company, and the director said, ``We should be able to see when users leave the house, when they go to work, and wherever they are throughout the day. Anything less is pointless.'' 'We have even more data from other tech companies.'
I wound up meeting with a Director who came in huffing and puffing.— Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
The Director said “We should know when users leave their house, their commute to work, and everywhere they go throughout the day. Anything less is useless. We get a lot more than that from other tech companies.”
In response to communications companies that disregard user privacy and seek to sell location data of identifiable users, Mr. Krenzel told them in a condescending manner that ``there is no way they would do such a thing.'' At a meeting held internally at Twitter, the Legal Department argued that there was no problem with the user's terms of service. But Krenzel's entire team knew there was a privacy issue, and Twitter had just undergone major layoffs, so they could instead free up resources to develop features that would compromise user privacy. There wasn't.
Normally they might find another engineer to do this work, but my whole team was aligned with the privacy concerns. Twitter had also just done layoffs (aside: time is a flat circle), so there were no spare engineers around.— Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
Mr. Krenzel's team was not affected by the layoffs, but the outflow of human resources did not stop. Mr. Krenzel himself decided to retire because he felt that ``Twitter was no longer a place where I could do good work,'' and in the process he also engaged in actions to cancel a project with a telecommunications company. Krenzel says he'll never forget when a new manager told him, ``If I put some money in a dump truck and give it to you, would you stay on Twitter and make this product?''
One random anecdote:— Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
In the middle of this, I had gotten a new manager who, in a retention attempt I'll never forget, said “If we filled a dump truck with money and dumped it on you, would you stay and build this?”
I wasn't really sure how to respond to that… but no dice.
Krenzel's last email on Twitter was to then-CEO Dorsey. In response to an email about a project with a telecommunications company, Mr. Dorsey immediately replied, ``Let me check to see if there are any misunderstandings. This is not the right thing to do. I don't want to do that.'' The project has since been halted to Krenzel's knowledge, and Krenzel says Dorsey was actually dissatisfied with the project. However, ``I don't know if this idea applies to Twitter's new owner. I think Elon will do even worse things with the data,'' he said, expressing concern about user privacy on Twitter in the future. Masu.
As far as I know, the project actually got canned. Jack genuinely didn't like it.— Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
I don't know if this mindset will hold true with the new owner of Twitter though. I would assume Elon will do far worse things with the data.
Wrapping up the thread, Krenzel said, 'For employees who are still on Twitter, don't underestimate the power of pocket beats you have. Things can go wrong, and things can escalate. 'There's a risk of being exposed to headwinds, but good pocket beats are something you learn by using,' he told Twitter employees.
And, for the any employees still at Twitter, don't underestimate the power of a pocket veto.— Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
Sometimes it doesn't work out, or you have to escalate and risk it back firing, but a good pocket veto is a tool to learn to wield well.