A pair of former Twitter employees – one an engineer and the other a media partnership manager – were busted for accessing users’ account and personal data on behalf of Saudi Arabia to ferret out opponents of the kingdom.
Engineer Ali Alzabarah and manager Ahmad Abouammo were charged with operating within the U.S. as agents of a foreign power, the Justice Department said Wednesday. In charges filed in a San Francisco court, the FBI noted the two defied Twitter policies and used their “access to proprietary and confidential Twitter information,” including the email addresses, phone numbers, birthdates and IP addresses of Twitter users, on behalf of the Saudi government. Abouammo is linked to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), who U.S. intelligence officials say ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“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,” U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson said in a statement. “U.S. law protects U.S. companies from such an unlawful foreign intrusion. We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”
The Justice Department charges lay out a scheme in which Abouammo spied on three Twitter accounts while Alzabarah accessed 6,000 accounts to suss out Saudi dissidents and activists in the U.S. who opposed Saudi Arabia’s policies in exchange for monetary compensation.
A third man, Ahmed Almutairi, who worked for a social media firm associated with the Saudi government, served as an intermediary and is being sought by authorities. Alzabarah and Almutairi are both Saudi citizens while Abouammo is a citizen of the U.S.
“We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service,” Twitter said in a statement. “Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.”