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Saudi Arabia recruited Twitter workers to spy on users, U.S. says

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U.S. prosecutors allege Saudi officials coordinated an effort to recruit Twitter employees to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts.
(Loic Venance / AFP/Getty Images)

The Saudi government recruited two Twitter employees to get its critics’ personal account information, U.S. prosecutors said Wednesday.

The complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi officials to recruit employees at the social media firm to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts.

The accounts included those of a journalist with more than 1 million followers and other prominent government critics.

It also alleged that the employees — whose jobs did not require access to Twitter users’ private information — were rewarded with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funneled into secret bank accounts. They were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government.

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The Saudi government had no immediate comment through its embassy in Washington.

Ahmad Abouammo, who left his job as the media partnership manager responsible for Twitter’s Middle East region in 2015, was also charged with falsifying documents and making false statements when questioned by FBI agents at his Seattle home — offenses that carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison if convicted.

At his appearance in Seattle federal court Wednesday, Abouammo was ordered to remain in custody pending a detention hearing set for Friday.

His lawyer, Christopher Black, declined to comment, as did Abouammo’s wife, who did not give her name.

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Investigators also alleged that a Saudi working as a social media advisor for the Saudi royal family recruited Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah by flying him to Washington for a private meeting with an unnamed member of the family.

“Within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse,” the complaint said.

The effort included the user data of more than 6,000 Twitter users, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter, investigators said.

After being confronted by his supervisors at Twitter, prosecutors said, Alzabarah admitted to accessing user data and said he did it out of curiosity.

Alzabarah was placed on administrative leave, his work-owned laptop was seized, and he was escorted out of the office. The next day, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter and has not returned to the United States, investigators said. A warrant for his arrest was issued as part of the complaint.

The social media advisor charged in the complaint went by the name Ahmed Almutairi or Ahmed Aljbreen.


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