Ex-Twitter workers charged with spying for Saudi Arabia by accessing user accounts


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Angela Lang/CNET

The United States Justice Department has actually charged 2 previous Twitter workers with spying for Saudi Arabia by accessing the individual info of countless Twitter users, according to a criminal grievance unsealed Wednesday.

The grievance raises issues about whether Twitter is doing enough to protect the info of users crucial of authoritarian programs. It likewise clarifies user info Twitter has access to, consisting of logs of user activity, e-mails and telephone number. 

One ex-employee, Ahmad Abouammo, deals with claims that he went into a number of user accounts, consisting of that of a popular critic of the Saudi federal government. Abouammo, a US person who was apprehended on Tuesday, handled Twitter’s media collaborations for the Middle East and North Africa areas till 2015, according to the grievance. He dealt with a Saudi authorities who supposedly rewarded him with a designer watch and a minimum of $300,000. 

Abouammo was likewise implicated of making incorrect declarations and falsifying a billing when he was called by the FBI.

Another staff member, Ali Alzabarah, supposedly dealt with the very same Saudi authorities and accessed to the individual info connected with more than 6,000 Twitter accounts. That consisted of e-mails, telephone number and web procedure addresses. Alzabarah is a Saudi person and worked as a Twitter engineer whose task was to make certain the website was up and running.

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Federal officials say the defendants were acting under the direction and control of the government of Saudi Arabia.

“The FBI will not stand by and allow foreign governments to illegally exploit private user information from U.S. companies,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett in a statement issued Thursday by the Department of Justice. “Insider threats pose a critical threat to American businesses and our national security.”

The Washington Post reported that the personal information of Twitter user Omar Abdulaziz, who’s been critical of the Saudi government and has more than 1 million followers, was accessed. Abdulaziz was close to Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose killing last year has been linked to the Saudi government.

The complaint doesn’t name the Saudi official that the ex-Twitter employees were allegedly working with to access user information. But the Post, citing a person familiar with the case, reported that it was Bader Al Asaker, who had ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The CIA concluded last year the crown prince likely ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, but he’s denied it. 

A Twitter spokesman said in a statement that the company has tools to protect the privacy of users who face risks when they share their views, but the company declined to share more information. 

“We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service,” a Twitter spokesman said in a statement. “Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.”   

A third person, Ahmed Almutairi, has been accused of acting as an intermediary between the Saudi government and Twitter employees. Almutairi has also been charged with spying. 

Both ex-employees, as well as Asaker and Almutairi, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. 

Originally published Nov. 6, 2:43 p.m. PT.
Updates, 4:54 p.m.: Includes more information from the complaint and the Post; Nov. 7: Adds statement from the Department of Justice.

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