A former Twitter employee was arrested November 5 and accused of spying for Saudi Arabia. The Washington Post has a copy of the charges, which were released the next day. The Justice Department accuses Ahmad Abouammo of spying on three users’ accounts and also accused another former employee, Ali Alzabarah, of obtaining access to 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015.
A third person, Ahmed Almutairi, facilitated connections between the then-employees and the Saudi Arabia government, according to the charges. Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, allegedly looked through the accounts of individuals critical of the Saudi government, including Omar Abdulaziz, a friend of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who worked for The Washington Post and who was killed inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Alzabarah and Almutairi are both Saudi citizens and are believed to still be in that country.
“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,” said U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.” Neither Abouammo or Alzabarah had reason to access users’ private information, according to the complaint, and doing so was a “reportable violation of the Twitter Playbook policies regarding protecting user data.”
A Twitter spokesperson, speaking anonymously, told the Post the company understands the risks many face when tweeting critically about their governments. “We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work,” the representative said. Twitter has come under scrutiny for revealing email addresses and phone numbers of users, and in some cases, location information.
The men were working with the leader of a charitable organization that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman owns, according to the document, and The Washington Post identifies the official as Bader Al Asaker. The official was “working for and at the direction of Royal Family Member-1” and asked Abouammo about verifying that individual’s Twitter account, per the complaint.
Last year, The New York Times reported the Saudi government was paying people to act as trolls, marking critical tweets as “sensitive” so they would get flagged to potentially limit their reach. While Twitter has algorithms designed to detect bots performing such attacks, humans doing the flagging makes them more difficult to combat.