Former Twitter employee jailed for spying for Saudi Arabia

An ex-employee of Twitter was convicted of spying on users for the Saudi royal family. Reportedly, he was sharing email addresses, IP addresses, and phone numbers with a Saudi agent, as well as aiming to verify particular Saudi accounts or remove chosen tweets.

According to a statement released by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Ahmad Abouammo, 45, was given a three-and-a-half-year jail term for his role in obtaining, monitoring, and sharing sensitive information that might have been used to track down and identify Twitter users of interest to the Saudi Royal Family, targeting dissidents and critics of Saudi Arabia.

Bribes and expensive gifts

Abouammo managed media partnerships for Twitter in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Internal Twitter policies state that information on Twitter users must be protected and require employees to disclose any conflicts of interest. Judge Chen said that Abouammo's behavior was "serious" and "consequential," adding that "exposing dissident information is a serious offense."

Abouammo allegedly started accepting bribes from a Saudi Arabian official as early as December 2014, according to the trial's evidence. Reportedly, Abouammo and the foreign official met in London in December 2014, where Abouammo received a Hublot watch worth $42 000 as a gift and transfers of $200 000 to Abouammo’s Lebanese bank account. The defendant sent the money into the US in small wire transfers with fictitious descriptions to launder it.

Abouammo was arrested on November 5, 2019. Another two Twitter employees – Ali Alzabarah and Ahmed Almutairi, were also charged for accessing users' private information. However, they fled the country and are allegedly hiding in Saudi Arabia.

"This case revealed that foreign governments, here, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will bribe insiders to obtain the user information that is collected and stored by our Silicon Valley social media companies," said US Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds for the Northern District of California, "this sentence sends a message to insiders with access to user information to safeguard it, particularly from repressive regimes, or risk significant time in prison."

With more than 12 million accounts, Saudi Arabia has the eighth-highest number of Twitter users worldwide. The state has a reputation for enforcing severe punishments for sharing content on social media critical of the government.

Not the first attempt to infiltrate Twitter

Peiter "Mudge" Zatko, a former security chief for Twitter, claimed that other foreign governments may have also attempted to access user data on Twitter. The cybersecurity expert testified at the hearing that "thousands" of unauthorized data access attempts were made every week within the organization.

In a testimony given to the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, the whistleblower stated that the Chinese and Indian governments also might have entrenched agents within the company and that the business could not assess the extent of infiltration. The company's internal systems do not have access logging, which makes it virtually hard to determine what information any particular employee has accessed.

Ties to Saudi Arabia causing concerns

Since Musk formally acquired Twitter, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and his Kingdom Holding Company have risen to Twitter's second-largest investor position. The company holds shares valued at $1.89 billion.

The US government is reportedly investigating whether Musk's foreign investment partners have access to users' personal information on the social media platform. During a post-election news conference, President Joe Biden expressed that Musk's "cooperation and/or technical relationships with other countries is worthy of being looked at."

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