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.”
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
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.
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.”
were first reported
by the Washington Post.