(ZH) — For all those still seeking details about Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it may be time to give Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey a call.
Two former Twitter employees were charged with spying for Saudi Arabia, the Justice Department unveiled on Wednesday in San Francisco, in a case which the WaPo said “raises concerns about the ability of Silicon Valley to protect the private information of dissidents and other users from repressive governments.”
The complaint unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts. The accounts included those of a popular journalist with more than 1 million followers and other prominent government critics.
The charges come one day after the arrest of one of the former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen who is alleged to have spied on the accounts of three users, including one whose posts discussed the inner workings of the Saudi leadership, on behalf of the government in Riyadh. Abouammo was also charged with falsifying an invoice to obstruct an FBI investigation.
The second former employee, Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, was accused of accessing the personal information of more than 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015.
And here is the punchline: one of those accounts that was accessed belonged to a prominent dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, who later became close to Jamal Khashoggi, the WaPo columnist who was killed by Saudi government agents last year.
A third individual, Saudi citizen Ahmed Almutairi, allegedly acted as an intermediary between Saudi officials and the Twitter employees. He is also charged with spying. Alzabarah and Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia. Analysts said it is the first time federal prosecutors have publicly accused Saudis of spying in the United States.
The DOJ 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.
It gets better: the three men are accused of working with a Saudi official who leads a charitable organization belonging to MbS. Based on a description of the charity, the official is Bader Al Asaker. Asaker’s charity, MiSK, belongs to Mohammed bin Salman, who is referred to in the complaint as Royal Family Member 1. Asaker began cultivating Twitter employees in 2014 in an effort to gather user information the Saudi government could not obtain elsewhere, the complaint alleged.
According to the complaint, Asaker was “working for and at the direction of” Mohammed “with respect to his online presence” on Twitter. In 2015, when most of the activity took place, Mohammed was a rising figure in the Saudi royal family.
Abouammo, who was arrested in Seattle, worked for Twitter as a media partnerships manager. He met Asaker in London in late 2014. Within a week, he began illicitly accessing data for the Saudis. One of his targets was referred to in the complaint as “Twitter User 1,” a “prominent critic” of the Saudi kingdom and royal family with more than 1 million followers. The description matches the account of @Mujtahidd, the Twitter handle for an anonymous individual whose disclosures about corruption in the Saudi leadership have angered officials there. The identity of the targeted account was confirmed by the person familiar with the case.
Asaker paid Abouammo at least $300,000 for his espionage and also gave him a watch worth about $20,000, the complaint alleged. In May 2015, Abouammo resigned from Twitter and moved to Seattle. Last fall, an FBI agent interviewed Abouammo at his home about the watch and his communications with Asaker and others. According to the complaint, Abouammo created a false receipt using his home computer during the interview to show a $100,000 payment received from Asaker to disguise the payments as media strategy work.
In short, MbS was using Twitter spies to crackdown on his enemies, which ironically included Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who was one of Twitter’s largest shareholders at the time and who was held captive by MbS at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton in the infamous 2017 royal shakedown.
“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,” said U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”
Suddenly finding itself in the middle of a firestorm, Twitter told the WaPo that it restricts 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.”
The charges also reflect the wealth of data tech firms compile on their users, including email addresses, payment methods, and IP addresses that can give up a user’s location.
The case “is incredibly significant,” said Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher who just published a study on Saudi Arabia’s targeting of dissidents. “Twitter is the de facto public space of Saudi Arabia — the place where Saudi citizens come and discuss issues. It’s a space in which the Saudi authorities have used various means to curtail critical voices, including by seeking to unmask anonymous accounts.”
Amusingly, Twitter also “thanked” the DOJ for its criminal probe of Saudi spies… who were until recently employed by Twitter, which was used to datamine an unknown number of individuals on behalf of Riyadh.
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