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Twitter staff recruited to spy for Saudi Arabia

Two former Twitter staff were recruited by the Saudi Arabian governement to spy the critics of the regime. The prosecutors claim that two US citizens of Saudi origin accessed personal information of over 6.000 accounts in 2015. These included Omar Abdulaziz, a governement critic and journalist, with over one million followers. He was closed to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, last year.

The two former employees were able to look up email addresses and associated IP addresses. Then, they offered the Saudi governement data about the geographic location of the users. They did this, although their job did not require access to user information. Ali Alzabarah was a “site reliability engineer” for Twitter.  

Ahmad Abouammo was a media partnership manager for Twitter’s Middle East region. The other one was a site reliability engineer. According to the prosecutors, their intermediary was a person who worked as a social media adviser to the royal family. Also, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, involved in the Khashoggi murder, is linked to this story.

According to the criminal complaint, the two former Twitter staff received tens of thousands of dollars in secret bank accounts and expensive watches.

FBI has one of them

Ali Alzabarah admitted to his boss that he had been spying on Twitter users and was escorted out of the office. Then he seems to have flown the next day with his family to Saudi Arabia. Ahmad Abouammo was separately charged with acting as a foreign agent. He was also charged with providing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with falsified records to obstruct the federal investigation.

Besides spying on Twitter users, Abouammo has also been accused of deleting certain information from the social media platform. Also, he unmasked the identities of some users and shut down Twitter accounts. He did this on the request of the Saudi government officials. 

Twitter thanked publicly the FBI and the Department of Justice for their support with this investigation. Besides, it mentioned that it limits access to sensitive account data “to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.”

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