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Twitter employees spied for Saudi Arabia

by on07 November 2019

Court told how the pair looked for Riyadh critics

Two former employees of Twitter were charged with spying for Saudi Arabia by snooping into thousands of private accounts seeking personal information about critics of the Riyadh government.

It is the first time that the federal prosecutor has charged Saudis with deploying agents inside the United States.  Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen, was a media partnerships manager at Twitter who was not authorised to access Twitter users' private information. He allegedly did precisely that for which he received payments of up to $300,000 from a Saudi source identified in the complaint only as "Foreign Official-1." Abouammo received a Hublot watch with a value of about $20,000.

Last year, Abouammo was interviewed in his home by the FBI about the watch and the payments he had received. According to the complaint, during the interview, he created a false invoice on his home computer to try to justify the fees as compensation for media consulting he said totalled no more than $100,000.

Abouammo is charged with acting as a foreign agent and falsifying records to obstruct a federal investigation.

Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, worked at Twitter beginning in August 2013 as a "site reliability engineer".

Between May 21, 2015, and November 18, 2015, Alzabarah, without authorisation, accessed "the Twitter data of over 6,000 Twitter users, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter", the complaint said. Among the accounts he accessed were those belonging to well-known critics of the Saudi government.

"One of those accounts belonged to a prominent dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, who later became close to Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who advocated free expression in the Arab world", it's alleged.

Alzabarah later claimed that he had looked at the data out of curiosity. He left the Twitter building in San Francisco on 2 December 2, 2015. The following day he submitted his resignation in an email while in flight enroute back to Saudi Arabia.

A third man, Ahmed Almutairi, aka Ahmed Aljbreen, was also charged with spying. He is a Saudi citizen described in the complaint as a principal in a social media marketing company that works for the Saudi royal family. As an alleged intermediary between Saudi officials and the former Twitter employees, he is believed to be in Saudi Arabia working with Alzabarah on social media projects "for the benefit of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, according to the complaint.

Last modified on 07 November 2019
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