The US Department of Justice reports that two former Twitter staff spied on Saudi Arabia to obtain criticism information against the Saudi regime.
On Wednesday two former Twitter workers, together with another individual, were charged, according to an announcement by the US Department of Justice, with allegedly spying on Twitter users critical of the Saudi Royal Family.
The lawsuit, unsealed on Wednesday, charges that Saudi officials hired Twitter staff to look up thousands of Twitter accounts ‘ private data and delete other content from the social media platform.
Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah were formerly two Twitter employees and Ahmed Almutairi, the third person, was arrested on charges of fraudulently obtaining private information and working as illegal agents of the foreign government.
Abouammo was also responsible for providing a falsified, backdated invoice to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In the complaint’s view, Almutairi and the Saudi officials coerced both men to use their employee credentials to access the private information behind certain Twitter accounts, especially those critical of the Saudi government and the royal family, between November 2014 and May 2015.
Abouammo has been a media relationship director for Twitter for almost two years. The complaint explains that he met a Saudi official in London in late 2014. Within a week of the meeting, he allegedly started to access Twitter data on behalf of the Saudi officer without authorisation. “Twitter User 1” was supposedly a “principal critic” of the Saudi royal family and had over 1 million followers, one of the targets of their lawsuit.
The lawsuit states that Abouammo continued to be in contact with officials in Saudi Africa after his departure from Twitter in mid-2015, who requested him to continue acting on some accounts including demands to shut down other accounts for Twitter violations and to check other users. Abouammo has been said to try to facilitate these demands by contacting his former Twitter colleagues.
For his efforts, Saudi officials reportedly paid at least $300,000 to Abouammo through a wire transfer to a business shell and a bank account in Lebanon. They also gave him a $20,000 worth watch, the lawsuit says.
Last year, the FBI interviewed Abouammo for the cash, the watch and communications it obtained with Saudi officials. In its complaint, the FBI alleged that during the interview, Abouammo had lied and provided a falsified, backdated receipt which revealed the Saudi official’s $100,000 payment, which he said was given in exchange for media consulting.
The second former employee of Twitter, Alzabarah, started working in August 2013 as a site reliability engineer. While working on Twitter, in May 2015, he flew to Washington DC to meet a Saudi official.
From May to November 2015, Alzabarah allegedly without authorization had mass access to Twitter users ‘ private data. The lawsuit claims that he has accessed information from 6000 Twitter users, including data from at least 33 users for whom Twitter has been questioned by the Saudi Arabian police.
The “Twitter User-9” was one of the users Alzabarah reportedly looked at. Alzabarah was said to be a “known, prominent critic of the government and Saudi Royal Family with Canadian asylum.”
The complaint also disclosed the scope of Twitter information, as Alzabarah is also allegedly accessing information such as the latest IP address information, computer used, biographical information supplied by users, logs containing the browser information of the users, and logs of all activities of a particular user on the Twitter platform.