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U.S. Charges Former Twitter Employees With Spying For Saudi Arabia

Justice Department says the two former employees accessed information about people who made posts critical of the Saudi royal family.

Federal prosecutors charged two former Twitter Inc. employees and a Saudi Arabian national with spying on some users of the social-media platform who were critical of Riyadh and providing that information to the kingdom’s officials.

The complaint filed in federal court in San Francisco accuses Ahmad Abouammo, Ali Alzabarah and Ahmed Almutairi of acting as illegal agents of a foreign government.

Mr. Abouammo, one of the former Twitter employees, was arrested in Seattle on Tuesday and is accused of trying to obtain personal information about Saudi Arabia’s critics, U.S. authorities said Wednesday. He made an initial court appearance Wednesday, prosecutors said.

Mr. Alzabarah, the other former Twitter employee, allegedly used employee credentials between November 2014 and May 2015 to obtain email addresses, dates of birth and other information about people who had published posts critical of the Saudi royal family, prosecutors said.

“This information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts,” the Justice Department said.

Saudi Arabia, in the past, has been accused of aggressively going after the regime’s detractors. The Central Intelligence Agency last year concluded that Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical of Saudi Arabia, was killed under order of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a close ally of President Trump, The Wall Street Journal has reported. Saudi Arabia denied the claim.

Messrs. Abouammo and Alzabarah began working for Twitter around 2013 and left the company in 2015.

Mr. Almutairi, identified as a Saudi national, was accused of operating as an intermediary between the two employees and the Saudi government, convincing the Twitter workers to access the information.

The Twitter employees received payments of varying kinds, the complaint alleged. Those included, in at least one case, a watch and in others cash or other benefits.

Arrest warrants have been issued for the two individuals not in custody. Both are believed to be in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Abouammo also was accused of destroying records in the investigation.

“The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known critics of the government and thousands of other Twitter users,” said David Anderson, U.S. attorney in San Francisco. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”

The charges are unusual because they allege wrongdoing by citizens of a close Middle Eastern ally of the U.S. and detail a sophisticated conspiracy to infiltrate Twitter’s workforce and leverage access to its systems to spy on individual users of the social-media platform.

A Twitter spokesperson said the company restricts access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.

“We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service,” the spokesperson said.

Mr. Alzabarah allegedly accessed the personal information of over 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015 on behalf of the Saudi government. Mr. Alzabarah’s job was website maintenance, prosecutors said, and didn’t involve accessing individual Twitter accounts.

U.S. authorities allege that in one instance Mr. Abouammo obtained the email address of a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family. The user had more than 1 million Twitter followers.

The case is the latest example of some of the challenges facing the world’s biggest social-media companies in safeguarding user information. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Wednesday disclosed an investigation of Facebook Inc. over its privacy practices.

In 2017, a Twitter employee accessed the platform’s systems to briefly deactivate President Trump’s prolific account.

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