While social media is abuzz with “quiet quitting” as the latest trend in employee behavior, whistleblowers from tech companies are quitting in the loudest possible way and sounding alarms on the way out or shortly thereafter. On August 23, 2022, news emerged that Twitter’s former head of security, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, had filed a whistleblower complaint against his former employer. The complaint cites “extreme, egregious deficiencies” in its cybersecurity program. The complaint alleges that Twitter misled its board of directors and regulators about its security vulnerabilities and protocols to delete users’ data after they canceled their accounts.
If this feels like a pattern, it is. Here’s the playbook: Top-ranking employees at supposedly values-based companies warn executives of concerns with company practices, and employees are subsequently ignored, silenced, or terminated. These employees, jaded from years of ethics washing, become whistleblowers. This is a self-inflicted wound, because these individuals desperately tried to change things inside their companies by going to leadership with concerns well before those concerns became headlines. But they were pressured to conform, ignored entirely, and subsequently sidelined.
Mudge becomes the third such individual to come forward. He follows Frances Haugen, former data scientist at Facebook who came forward in October of 2021 and orchestrated “The Facebook Files,” testifying before Congress that the company prized growth and profits over combating hate speech, misinformation, and mental health of teenage users. And in December of 2020, Timnit Gebru was summarily dismissed from Google’s Ethical AI group over research that detailed the risks that large language models pose.
Tech Firms Overpromise On Values And Ethics And Then Underdeliver
Last year, Forrester called out that trust is the business imperative of the next decade. Like greenwashing, ethics washing poses a new systemic risk to organizations that will threaten the trust that consumers, governments, partners, and even their own boards will have in the organization.
Many tech firms — including Twitter — have put responsible and ethical technology principles into practice in the form of AI ethics boards, responsible innovation guidelines, and offices of ethical and humane use of technology. But these self-regulatory half-measures are being called out as ethics washing: tech companies are sending signals they are NOT ready to conform to.
When firms say they are developing technology responsibly, it attracts talent who believe in those values. Mudge has said as much. Jack Dorsey recruited him to improve security, and Mudge believed in the mission. And when you select people with ideals and integrity … you get people with ideals and integrity. When you behave in ways that betray those people, they do not simply conform — they rebel.
Reorgs And Layoffs Will Not Scare Potential Whistleblowers
Widespread layoffs and uncertain recessionary signals could shift the balance of power away from tech workers, but even in that world, cybersecurity remains a sellers’ market. The SEC stated this year that it has issued rewards of over $1.3 billion in total to 278 individuals since issuing its first whistleblower reward in 2012. These incentives bring resources and greater legal protections, so it’s unlikely that those seeking accountability for tech’s harms will hold back. Tech worker organizations fund actions, offering counsel and advice to maximize impact. The same whistleblower resource that put Haugen in front of Congress with a bipartisan moral-panic message backed Mudge, orchestrating a campaign to build a bipartisan coalition as a catalyst for federal action.
Tech, Security, Risk, And Privacy Leaders Must Be The Voice Of Ethics
Few job markets compare to security, risk, and privacy in terms of supply versus demand. And that puts them in a unique position to lead change. When internal advocacy fails, a clear and effective external playbook now exists. Accepting defeat, resigning with an ambiguous “time to move on,” and confiding to close friends about how bad things were is the old way to leave.
Tons of articles want to convince everyone that quiet quitting is the new normal. Whistleblowing is the opposite of quiet quitting. Recruiting values-based, empowered employees in fields with scorching demand and then not listening to them almost guarantees that they will not quit quietly.
This unique confluence of circumstances presents an opportunity for tech leaders to make digital ethics, security improvements, risk programs, and trust initiatives a mainstream topic of conversation … while driving up crisis communications costs for their former employers at the same time.
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