Twitter Employees Spied on Users for Saudis: Prosecutors

Friday, 08 Nov, 2019

The charges were unveiled earlier in the day in San Francisco in a case that will likely raise concerns about USA relations with ally Saudi Arabia and the threat of autocrats spying on users via Silicon Valley-based web platforms.

The two Saudi citizens and one USA citizen allegedly worked together to unmask the ownership details of the dissenting Twitter accounts on behalf of the government in Riyadh and the royal family, the department said.

One of the former Twitter employees named in the court documents, Ahmad Abouammo, is a USA citizen.

A third person, Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi citizen, was also charged. Abouammo, an American citizen, was recently arrested in Washington state.

Commencing in 2014, Abouammo and Alzabarah worked with a Saudi govt official recognized by The Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima as Al Asaker. The 2nd, a Saudi citizen named Ali Alzabarah, fled the place a working day immediately after remaining confronted about his activities and becoming positioned on depart by Twitter in December 2015.

During his employment, he grew increasingly close to Saudi intelligence operatives, Western intelligence officials told executives. He later attempted to sell the watch on Craigslist, the complaint says.

"This information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts", the Justice Department said in a news release. These records contained users' personal information, such as email addresses and phone numbers.

According to the affidavit from the FBI, Saudi officials paid up to $300,000 to Abouammo for his work, which he tried to cover up with faked invoices to his personal needs, and also gifted him a luxury Hublot watch worth $20,000. According to the affidavit, he conceded he had accessed accounts but said he had done so out of curiosity.

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation approached him at his home in Seattle, and questioned the transactions, Abouammo said he had earned it from a consulting contract.

The US government has charged three Saudis, including two former Twitter employees, with spying for Saudi Arabia, raising concerns about oppressive governments' efforts to infiltrate social media platforms to gather information about dissidents.

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One of the two people is reportedly an associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - who the Central Intelligence Agency has concluded likely ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul previous year.

Despite the pressure, Trump has stood by the kingdom and its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who appears in the complaint as Royal Family Member-1, according to the Washington Post, which initially reported the charges.

Each males are believed to be in Saudi Arabia, the report stated. He now holds a B1/B2 U.S. visa, but has not been back to America since.

Twitter thanked the DoJ and the FBI for supporting the investigation. "We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service", it said.