People

Fallout from the Twitch data leak is already severe, and it’s going to get worse

A massive gaming breach has exposed some of Twitch's most sensitive data, and nobody is happy.

Twitch app with leaky faucet on side

Twitch is now dealing with the fallout from arguably its most severe data breach to date.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Twitch on Wednesday disclosed a data breach, and it was far from an average, run-of-the-mill leak. This breach involved hundreds of gigabytes of sensitive company data, including platform source code, internal tooling and future product plans, like an Amazon-owned competitor to Valve's Steam marketplace codenamed "Vapor."

Yet perhaps the most sensitive leaked info, and from which we can expect the most fallout, is more than two years' worth of data pertaining to streamer payouts on the platform. Internet sleuths and other curious onlookers have already begun compiling this data into neat spreadsheets and working to verify it against publicly available info. All signs right now point to it being legitimate, though with some unexplained discrepancies. Twitch has yet to confirm the data's veracity.

Streamer earnings are a sensitive subject. The streaming landscape is quite new compared to the world of traditional celebrity, and much of it depends on a streamer's ability to cultivate a daily friendlike fandom with internet strangers. So it's come as a shock to some to see just how wealthy Twitch personalities are, and it's sure to complicate Twitch's relationship with creators and those creators' relationships with their fans.

  • The leak contains earnings stretching back to at least August 2019. It includes Twitch subscriber revenue after the platform's 50% cut, and ad revenue, although the leak does not contain data on sponsorships, donations, merchandise or other financials that we know of right now. (The alleged hacker's messaging suggests more leaked data may be on the way.)
  • Twitch, like YouTube, has become a burgeoning creator ecosystem that largely advertises itself as a neutral platform where any one streamer can make it big through hard work, long hours and community building.
  • However, Twitch also cuts lucrative deals with streamers, often renegotiating the cut it takes on subscriptions and the amount of money it may pay them upfront to stay on Twitch and not leave for YouTube or Facebook. Having streamer payouts laid bare may impose pressure on Twitch when negotiating such deals and make it potentially more difficult for streamers to cut competing deals.

The thief is on what sounds like a moral crusade. This wasn't just an unprotected database that was easy for all to find. Twitch now says a server configuration change left the data exposed to a malicious third party, which deliberately stole it and then posted it as a link on infamous internet forum 4chan with the intent to "foster more disruption and competition in the online video streaming space," the anonymous poster wrote.

  • Twitch has become embroiled in a series of controversies over the last few years, ranging from its handling of harassment and music copyright strikes to the amount of support it gives certain big-name streamers over smaller creators. In late August, Twitch members organized a boycott of the platform over so-called "hate raids."
  • The 4chan poster, whose role in the hacking is unclear, referred to Twitch as a "disgusting toxic cesspool" and the leak, labeled "day one," may be the beginning in a series of related data dumps.
  • Despite the grand intentions, the leak exposes streamers to potential financial security and personal safety threats now that part of their net worth has been made public without their consent, as Motherboard reported Wednesday.

Some streamers are open about how much money they make. Political commentator Hasan Piker, who the data indicates was the 13th highest-paid streamer since 2019, glibly wrote on Twitter, "Can't wait for [people] to be mad at me about my publicly available sub count again," because Piker opts to make this information available to anyone who views his streams. Many others, however, do not, in part because it can complicate one's public image.

  • The leak indicates 81 Twitch streamers have made more than $1 million from the platform in the last two years. Much like YouTube, these streamers can afford to stream for hours every day and can in the process become veritable and wealthy internet celebrities.
  • The streaming ecosystem is imbalanced, with a vast majority of streamers making close to no money and streaming to anywhere from zero to 10 viewers on average. Smaller streamers have often complained about the struggles to attain viewership and exposure on Twitch, given the platform's organization around a small handful of the most popular video games and streamers.
  • Knowing payout information in blunt dollar figures will likely complicate an already-fragile landscape where most of the money flows to the top and breakout successes are relatively rare. Comparing streamers' relative financial health and arguing over who "deserves" more or less money is already rampant on social media.

Twitch is now in the uncomfortable position of trying to investigate this leak and how it happened, combat future breaches down the line and regain the trust of its community all at the same time. It's not clear right now how this data, regardless of its accuracy, will be weaponized and how it might influence the platform's online and offline dynamics. But this information, once a closely guarded company secret, is now out in the open, and there's no turning back.

Update Oct. 7, 10:45AM ET: Added additional information about the breach from Twitch.

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