- An ex-Twitter engineer said he left the company after being asked to help sell identifiable user data.
- He called it “the most unethical thing” he was asked to build while at Twitter from 2015-2017.
- Steve Krenzel predicted Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, “will do far worse things” with data.
A former Twitter software engineer took to the platform to talk about what he called “the most unethical thing” he was asked to build at the company before he left in 2017.
Steve Krenzel, who is currently a principal engineer at Brex, worked at Twitter as a software engineer from 2015 to 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile. He told Insider that he wrote the thread amid Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter to “share a war story and give some support to engineers in similarly difficult positions.”
—Steve Krenzel (@stevekrenzel) November 7, 2022
Krenzel said that, years ago, he was pulled into working with Twitter’s sales team with a large telecommunications company that wanted to pay Twitter to log and then send it signal strength data for North America.
At the time, Krenzel said Twitter was “near death” and “desperate” to find a buyer. In April 2015, Insider reported that Twitter’s monthly active users were on the decline after peaking in August 2014. In February 2016, the company’s user growth had stalled.
Krenzel said he worked with the data science team “to find a granularity” that would still “preserve anonymity even when combined with other sources of data.”
But the telco company thought it was useless, and instead wanted to be able to learn how many Twitter users were entering rivals’ stores, a request Krenzel said he found “a bit sketchier, but maybe workable in a privacy respecting way.”
After presenting an alternative, Krenzel said the telco company “didn’t like it and were frustrated,” as was Twitter’s sales team. He said he was then asked to go to the telco’s headquarters, and that “the subsequent request was absurd.”
“I wound up meeting with a director who came in huffing and puffing,” Krenzel said. “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.”
Krenzel said he would never help sell “granular identifiable” user data, but Twitter’s legal team told him the telco company’s request was “fine” and that it didn’t violate Twitter users’ terms of service.
At the time, Krenzel said Twitter was doing layoffs, and didn’t have another engineer to do the work Krenzel and the rest of his team didn’t want to do. Although his team wasn’t impacted by layoffs, Krenzel said half of them quit.
“I decided to join the exodus and would pull any levers to kill this on my out,” Krenzel said.
He quit. Krenzel said a new manager then asked if he would stay at the company and work with the telco company if Twitter “filled a dump truck with money and dumped it on” him.
Krenzel said he sent his last email at Twitter to Jack Dorsey, the company’s co-founder who served as CEO from the time Krenzel started in 2015 until 2021.
In response, Krenzel said Dorsey said he would look into the telco company’s request to “make sure there isn’t a misunderstanding.” Dorsey said the request “doesn’t seem right,” and that Twitter “wouldn’t want to do that,” according to Krenzel.
He said the project was canned from what he knows, and that Dorsey “genuinely didn’t like it.”
“I don’t know if this mindset will hold true with the new owner of Twitter though,” Krenzel said. “I would assume Elon will do far worse things with the data.”
To current Twitter employees, Krenzel said not to underestimate the concept of a “pocket veto,” or not following through with decisions to stall them.
“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,” he said.
Elon Musk, who became Twitter’s new owner last month, replied to Krenzel’s tweet about his meeting with the unnamed telecom director, and said, “Wow, this is messed up!” Musk did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment ahead of publication asking whether he would ever sell access to identifiable user data.
Musk wants to grow Twitter’s subscription revenue, which would help it move away from a dependence on advertising, an industry which is facing headwinds.
The CEO has talked about Twitter’s loss of advertising revenue as some advertisers pause or pull out from the platform amid his takeover. In a tweet, he blamed activist groups “pressuring advertisers” for the loss.