Two former Twitter employees, Saudi businessman accused of spying for Saudi Arabia

Two former Twitter employees and a Saudi businessman have been charged in federal court in San Francisco with spying on Twitter users for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, according to a criminal complaint unsealed on Wednesday.

The complaint, filed Tuesday, was unsealed by a federal magistrate at the request of prosecutors following the arrest of former Twitter Middle East media partnerships manager Ahmad Abouammo, 41, in Seattle on Tuesday.

Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, worked for Twitter from 2013 to 2015. He is accused of giving a Saudi official private information about two unnamed Twitter users who were critical of the Saudi government and royal family in 2014 and 2015. One of the Twitter users was a “prominent critic” who had more than one million followers, according to the complaint.

Ali Alzabarah, 35, a Saudi citizen and former Twitter engineer who formerly lived in San Bruno, is alleged to have gained unauthorized access to more than 6,000 Twitter accounts between May and November 2015. He fled to Saudi Arabia on Dec. 3, 2015, a day after being confronted by Twitter officials, according to the complaint.

The third defendant, Ahmed Almutairi, 30, a Saudi citizen, is a social media marketing executive who allegedly acted as an intermediary between the two Twitter employees and the Saudi official.

All three defendants are charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general. The charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison upon conviction.

Abouammo faces a second charge of obstructing justice by apparently creating a false consulting invoice to deceive FBI investigators in 2018 about why he received $100,000 from the Saudi official. That charge has a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

After moving to Seattle for a different job in May 2015, Abouammo allegedly continued to work for the Saudi government by referring information requests to his former Twitter colleagues, according to the complaint, which alleges he was paid a total of more than $300,000.

Abouammo made an initial appearance before a federal magistrate in Seattle on Wednesday and was ordered held in custody until a further detention hearing in Seattle on Friday, according to the court docket.

The private information included users’ email addresses, birth dates, phone numbers and internet protocol (IP) addresses, according to the complaint. Prosecutors said the information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts. San Francisco-based Twitter said in a statement, “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 criminal complaint says that “since December 2015, Twitter has enhanced its controls and permissions to restrict access to user information only to those whose duties require access.”

U.S. Attorney David Anderson of San Francisco stated, “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.

“We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law,” Anderson said.

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