Hacker Delivers Mixed Bag of Internal Twitter Docs to Blogger

Last Updated Jul 15, 2009 5:58 PM EDT

TechCrunch got one of those gifts yesterday that every journalist dreams of -- a cache of 310 internal documents from Twitter that includes business projections, product plans, project pitches -- and also personal information about company employees, including co-founder Evan Williams and his wife.

Thus, this is what you could call a mixed-bag gift, from someone calling himself Hacker Croll.

So far, Michal Arrington is handling the ethical challenges posed by such a treasure trove quite well. He is slowly releasing documents pertinent to fostering a broader understanding of Twitter's business strategies, while withholding those that might compromise the privacy of the employees and subject them to harm or needless ridicule.

One revealing document purports to be the company's projections for audience growth: 25 million users in 2009 (according to Compete, this should be reached by the end of this month); 100 million in 2010; 350 million in 2010; and a billion users eventually.

(If this indeed is what Twitter is projecting beyond 2009, someone may want to check what's in their Kool-Aid.)
As Arrington well knows, the personal records he withholds will no doubt find their way onto the Internet somewhere, sometime soon. But, by hewing to higher journalistic standards himself than those who would gratuitously breach the Twitter gang's privacy, he is building additional brand equity and trust among users.

Plus, for as long as he can maintain his exclusivity to the documents, he can continue releasing them gradually and thoughtfully, which should lead to some very nice traffic growth at what is already one of the leading U.S. blog sites.

During my decades as an investigative reporter, I found myself in similar situations many times. One problem with anonymous leaks is that, as a journalist, your first task is to determine whether the documents are authentic or fake. Arrington has done this, obtaining confirmation from Williams of the hacker's attack.

It is also critical to try and figure out the motivation of whoever is leaking the documents -- usually it is someone with an axe to grind, often an ex-employee who feels (s)he was laid off unfairly; or someone who otherwise harbors a personal grudge against the people or company involved. That doesn't undermine the authenticity of the documents, but it helps the reporter develop a context for understanding why these particular documents were leaked.

Then, upon further investigation, sometimes you can determine that the selection of stuff you have offers only one side of a story; and that those with custody of counter-vailing information may become motivated to help you get a more-rounded view.

Of course, smart leakers may provide copies of some or all of the documents to other journalists, seeking to exploit competitive pressures that may lead to more or even all of the material coming to public view faster. None of this is news to Arrington.

One problem he faces right now, however, is that in the age of the Internet, once this kind of genie is out of its bottle, it's going to be popping up here, there, everywhere.

But so far, he gets a hat's-off from here in the way he is handling these challenges and opportunities.

(Thierry Lamouline spotted Arrington's first report and forwarded it to me.)

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.