Saudi Arabia allegedly recruited former Twitter employees to access user data

The US Justice Department is alleging two former Twitter employees acted as spies for Saudi Arabia to access the data of critics against the Saudi regime.
Written by Campbell Kwan, Contributor

Two former Twitter employees, along with another individual, were charged on Wednesday for allegedly spying on Twitter users critical of the Saudi royal family, the US Justice Department has announced. 

The complaint, unsealed on Wednesday, alleges that Saudi officials recruited employees at Twitter to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts and remove certain content from the social media platform.

The two former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, and the third person named Ahmed Almutairi were arrested on charges of fraudulently accessing private information and acting as illegal agents of a foreign government.

Abouammo has also been separately charged with providing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with a falsified, backdated invoice. 

According to the complaint, between November 2014 and May 2015, Almutairi and Saudi officials convinced the two men to use their employee credentials to access private information about individuals behind certain Twitter accounts, particularly those who were critical of the Saudi government and royal family. 

Abouammo is said to have worked for Twitter as a media partnerships manager for almost two years. During this time, he met with a Saudi official in London in late-2014, the complaint explains. Within a week of the meeting, he allegedly began accessing data from Twitter without authorisation on behalf of the Saudi official. One of the targets referred to in the complaint that had their data accessed, "Twitter User 1", was allegedly a "prominent critic" of the Saudi royal family and had over 1 million followers.

The complaint explains that after leaving Twitter in mid-2015, Abouammo continued to remain in contact with Saudi officials, who asked him to continue to take action on certain user accounts, including requests to shut down certain accounts for violating Twitter's terms and services and to verify certain users. It was said that Abouammo attempted to facilitate these requests by contacting his former colleagues at Twitter.

For his efforts, Saudi officials allegedly paid Abouammo at least $300,000, via wire transfer to a shell company and a bank account in Lebanon. They also gave him a watch valued around $20,000, the complaint alleges.

The FBI interviewed Abouammo last year about the money he received, the watch, and communications with Saudi officials. In the complaint, the FBI alleges that during the interview, Abouammo lied about the watch and provided a falsified, backdated receipt that showed a $100,000 payment from the Saudi official, which he said was provided in exchange for media consulting services.

The second former Twitter employee, Alzabarah, began working at the company as a site reliability engineer in August 2013. While working at Twitter, he flew to Washington DC in May 2015, where he allegedly met with a Saudi official. 

From May to November 2015, Alzabarah allegedly accessed the private data of Twitter users en masse without authorisation. The complaint says he accessed the data of 6,000 Twitter users, including the data of at least 33 users that Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter for. 

Among the users that Alzabarah allegedly looked into was "Twitter User-9", who was said to be a "well-known and influential critic of the government and Royal Family of Saudi Arabia with asylum in Canada".  

The complaint also revealed the extent of information Twitter holds, as Alzabarah also allegedly accessed information such as recent IP address information, device used, user-provided biographical information, logs containing user's browser information, and a log of all of a particular user's actions on the Twitter platform.

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