Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia

Ex-Twitter Workers Charged with Spying for Saudis as part of Kingdom's Growing Crackdown on Dissent

Ex-Twitter Workers Charged with Spying for Saudis as part of Kingdom's Growing Crackdown on Dissent

The Saudi government, frustrated by growing criticism of its leaders and policies on social media, recruited two Twitter employees to gather confidential personal information on thousands of accounts that included prominent opponents, prosecutors alleged Wednesday.

Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, who used to work for Twitter, and Ahmed Almutairi, who then worked for the Saudi royal family, face charges of working for Saudi Arabia without registering as foreign agents, according to the complaint filed against them on Wednesday.

This is the first time the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is charged with espionage in the US.

Saudi Arabia has not yet publicly remarked on the complaint.

The alleged spying had been going on since 2015 and some of those targeted, including media personalities, were informed at the time, but a clearer picture had only recently emerged of the extent it was carried out, officials said. It gave no details on the topics discussed at the meeting, which was also attended by the Saudi foreign and interior ministers and the USA ambassador.

The Saudi government's alleged attempts to crush dissent exploded onto the world stage past year with the killing of prominent critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The former employees, Ahmad Abouammo, a USA citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, allegedly accessed the private information of Twitter users at the request of a Saudi official with close ties to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Court documents indicate that Abouammo has been under investigation by the FBI since autumn of 2018.

"The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter's internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users", US Attorney David Anderson said in a statement. They are also accused of compiling information about their email addresses, birthdates, telephone numbers and Internet protocols.

Whether personally identifiable information was "compromised and exposed through an accidental data breach or insider efforts to harvest data", Todt said, "the point is still the same: Tech platforms continue to fall short on their accountability and responsibility for data protection".

Ryan Kalember, the executive vice president of cybersecurity strategy for Proofpoint, said companies like Twitter should focus on detecting abnormal behavior by employees. It also says the third man is a Saudi who acted as an intermediary between the two and Saudi authorities. Abouammo is detained and investigators believe Alzabarah is in Saudi Arabia. According to the Associated Press, Abouammo was ordered to remain in custody pending a detention hearing to be held on Friday. Prosecutors allege this individual, a Saudi citizen, worked as a liaison between the Twitter employees and the Saudi government. He later attempted to sell the watch on Craigslist, the complaint says.

The meeting in Riyadh was attended by a number of Saudi officials including Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and intelligence chief Khalid al-Humaidan.

The complaint said Almutairi recruited Alzabarah and flew him to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2015, when a Saudi delegation visited the White House. The university did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Twitter acknowledged that it cooperated with the criminal investigation and said in a statement that it restricts access to sensitive account information "to a limited group of trained and vetted employees".

Twitter would not comment on how it became aware of the two men's activities or whether it alerted law enforcement.

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