Saudi gov't recruited Twitter workers to spy on users, US prosecutors say

ASSOCIATED PRESS
SAN FRANCISCO
Published 07.11.2019 02:16
This file photo taken on October 24, 2017 shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh. (AFP Photo)
This file photo taken on October 24, 2017 shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh. (AFP Photo)

The Saudi government recruited two Twitter employees to get personal account information of their critics, prosecutors said Wednesday.

A complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi government officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts.

The accounts included those of a popular journalist with more than 1 million followers and other prominent government critics.

It also alleged that the employees — whose jobs did not require access to Twitter users' private information — were rewarded with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funneled into secret bank accounts. They were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government.

The Saudi government had no immediate comment through its embassy in Washington.

Ahmad Abouammo, who left his job as the media partnership manager responsible for Twitter's Middle East region in 2015, was also charged with falsifying documents and making false statements when questioned by FBI agents at his Seattle home — offenses that carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison if convicted.

At his appearance in Seattle federal court Wednesday, Abouammo was ordered to remain in custody pending a detention hearing set for Friday.

His lawyer, Christopher Black, declined to comment, as did Abouammo's wife, who did not give her name.

Investigators alleged that a Saudi working as a social media adviser for the Saudi royal family recruited Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah by flying him to Washington, D.C., for a private meeting with an unnamed member of the family.

"Within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse," the complaint said.

The effort included the user 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, investigators said.

After being confronted by his supervisors at Twitter, Alzabarah acknowledged accessing user data and said he did it out of curiosity, authorities said.

Alzabarah was placed on administrative leave, his work-owned laptop was seized, and he was escorted out of the office. The next day, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter and has not returned to the United States, investigators said.

A warrant for his arrest was issued as part of the complaint.

The social media adviser charged in the complaint went by the name Ahmed Almutairi or Ahmed Aljbreen.

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