The Justice Department has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia on private details of user accounts that were critical of the kingdom.
The charges against Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, unveiled Wednesday and first reported by The Washington Post, raise concerns about the ability of tech giants to protect the personal information of those who criticize oppressive regimes.
The Justice Department also charged Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi citizen who prosecutors said had acted as an intermediary between the Twitter employees and Saudi officials since at least 2014.
“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,” David L. Anderson, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, said in a Wednesday press release. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”
Abouammo is an American citizen who worked from 2013 to 2015 as a media partnerships manager for the Middle East and North Africa region at San Francisco-based Twitter before moving to Seattle. He’s accused of fraudulently accessing private information tied to three Twitter users’ accounts on behalf of the Saudi government, including one account that talked about the inner workings of Saudi leadership. He’s also accused of fabricating an invoice to obstruct an FBI investigation.
Alzabarah is a Saudi citizen who worked as a site reliability engineer at Twitter until about December 2015. He’s charged with fraudulently accessing more than 6,000 accounts’ personal information for Saudi Arabia. One of those accounts, according to the Post, belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent critic of the Saudi regime who became close to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist whose brutal murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year was linked by the CIA to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
All three suspects are also charged with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government.
Prosecutors allege that the Saudi officials sought email addresses, IP addresses and birthdates of critics of the regime ― data that could be used to identify and locate the dissidents. They contend that Alzabarah and Abouammo were compensated in exchange for accessing that information in violation of Twitter policies and “under the direction and control of the government of Saudi Arabia.”
“Insider threats pose a critical threat to American businesses and our national security,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett in the Justice Department’s press release.
Abouammo was arrested on Tuesday and appeared in court in Seattle on Wednesday. Alzabarah and Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia, though the Justice Department has issued federal warrants for their arrest.
A spokesperson for Twitter released a statement Wednesday saying the tech giant is “committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights,” and thanking the FBI and the Justice Department for investigating the matter.
“We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service. Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” the spokesperson said. “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.”
Read the criminal complaint below: