Two former Twitter employees have been charged by the Justice Department on Wednesday with spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia, with the U.S. government claiming one of the employees accessed the personal information of thousands of users who were critical of the Saudi government.
The charges were filed Wednesday in San Francisco, according to The Washington Post. The spies targeted critics of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has increasingly shaped Saudi policy since his father became king in 2015.
Saudi citizen and former Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah is accused of using his role at the tech giant to spy on more than 6,000 users in 2015, according to the Post. Among the users Alzabarah spied on was Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent critic of the Saudi Royal Family, according to the U.S. government.
Another former employee, Ahmad Abouammo, spied on three users for the Saudi government, according to the filing. Abouammo is a U.S. citizen and was arrested on Tuesday in connection to the spying charges; he’s also been accused of falsifying an invoice to obstruct an FBI investigation, according to the Post. Abouammo served as a media partnerships manager at Twitter for the Middle East and North Africa region from 2013-15.
“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 on Wednesday. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”A Twitter spokesperson shared the following statement with TheWrap:
“We would like to thank the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for their support with this investigation. 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. 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. We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.”
The Justice Department has also charged Saudi citizen Ahmed Almutairi with spying, saying he acted as a middle man between the Saudi regime and the two Twitter employees. The employees researched a Twitter account that had shared information on Saudi corruption, as well as another account tied to a critic that had sought asylum in Canada, among the thousands of users they spied on. The spying was bankrolled by a charity led by the crown prince. Abouammo, who left Twitter in 2015 and moved to Seattle, was given more than $300,000 in exchange for his espionage, according to the U.S. government. He was arrested in Seattle on Tuesday.The three men face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Abouammo faces an additional 20 years and another $250,000 fine for lying to FBI agents, the Justice Department said.
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