Federal prosecutors have accused two former Twitter employees of spying for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The case emphasizes the allegations that the Saudi government tries to control anti-regime voices abroad. It also highlights how the country’s controversial leader Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to weaponize online platforms against its critics. These new accusations will once again bring the main question to the forefront – user’s privacy and how Twitter plans to protect it.
The Justice Department alleged in a criminal complaint that the two accuses, Ali Alzabarah who is a Saudi national, and Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen, took advantage of their access while working on Twitter to gather sensitive and nonpublic information on protesters of the Kingdom’s regime.
While not confirmed, a third man, Ahmed Almutairi who also hails from Saudi Arabia, supposedly acted as a middleman to the two Twitter employees and the Saudi government. According to the complaint, he rewarded the men with hundreds of thousands of dollars and for one man a luxury Hublot watch. Both the former Twitter employees assertedly conducted the surveillance in 2015 and then left the company later that year.
In a statement, Twitter said it limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees. “We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights,” Twitter said.
As of now, no Saudi government officials are named as running the spy operation in the complaint. But if Washington Post is to be believed, a Saudi national linked with this case is tied into the inner circle of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
All three accused men are charged with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government. Abouammo who is the only one accused currently in US custody is also charged with attempting to obstruct the FBI’s investigation by providing agents with a fake invoice.
US Attorney David Anderson said, “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. We will not allow US companies or US technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of US law.”
The Justice Department added that Alzabarah who worked as a web engineer for the company accessed data of over 6,000 Twitter users. Because of his role at the company, Alzabarah would have had access to the IP address of targeted users, as well as their email addresses, phone numbers and a log of all their actions on the platform at any given time.
This case also brings attention to the killing of prominent critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi where CIA concluded that Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud personally ordered the murder. The Saudi government has denied his involvement time and again.