Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia

Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia
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The Justice Department has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia, The Washington Post reports.

U.S. citizen Ahmad Abouammo on Tuesday was arrested for allegedly spying on the accounts of three users on behalf of the kingdom.

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Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, was charged on Wednesday with accessing the personal information of more than 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015 on behalf of Riyadh.

One of the accounts Alzabarah allegedly hacked belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a known critic of Saudi Arabia, who later became friends with Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post columnist that was killed by the Saudi government last year.

Ahmed Almutairi, another Saudi citizen, who allegedly acted as middleman between Saudi officials and the two former employees, was also charged with spying.

Alzabarah and Almutairi are both believed to be in Saudi Arabia.

The Post reports that this is the first time that federal prosecutors have publicly accused Saudi Arabia of spying in the U.S.

“We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law," U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson told the paper.

A spokesman for Twitter told the Post that the personal data that was compromised is restricted "to a limited group of trained and vetted employees."

A source confirmed to the paper that the Saudi official that the three men were reporting to was Bader Al Asaker, whose charity – MiSK – is owned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto leader.

In 2015, when most of the alleged activity took place, Mohammed was rapidly rising through the ranks of Saudi politics.

When Salman, Mohammed's father, became king in early 2015, he quickly named Mohammed defense minister and then deputy crown prince shortly thereafter.

It was during this time that Alzabarah was particularly active in viewing Abdulaziz's data and contacting Asaker, according to Justice Department officials.

Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle told the Post that this case is "incredibly significant.”

“Twitter is the de facto public space of Saudi Arabia — the place where Saudi citizens come and discuss issues," Coogle explained.

"It’s a space in which the Saudi authorities have used various means to curtail critical voices, including by seeking to unmask anonymous accounts.”

Additionally, Brookings Institution senior fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes told the paper that the case highlights "how early" pursuit of Mohammed dissenters started as well as Saudi officials' "willingness to pursue these people even when it involves the subversion of major American corporations and the targeting of people in friendly countries."

Mohammed has been linked to Khashoggi's murder, which happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.