TWO Twitter employees have been accused of spying for Saudi Arabia by snooping on thousands of the brutal regime’s critics.
The secret “Saudi agents” allegedly mined Twitter’s internal systems while working for the social networking service in America, claim officials.
Two ex-Twitter employees and a third man from Saudi Arabia dug up private user data and sold it to Saudi officials, alleges the US Department of Justice.
This includes probing for personal details – the email address and phone number – of a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family in early 2015.
Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, who used to work for Twitter, and Ahmed Almutairi, who then worked for the Saudi royal family, face charges of working for the ruthless regime without registering as foreign agents, according to a court complaint filed on Wednesday.
US Attorney David Anderson warned: “We will not allow US companies or US technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of US law.
“The criminal complaint alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users.”
Saudi authorities use various means to curtail critical voices, including seeking to unmask anonymous Twitter accounts.
Adam Coogle, Human Rights Watch researcher
The spy case is “incredibly significant”, according to Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher with expertise in Saudi Arabia.
He told the Washington Post: “Twitter is the de facto public space of Saudi Arabia — the place where Saudi citizens come and discuss issues.
“It’s a space in which the Saudi authorities have used various means to curtail critical voices, including by seeking to unmask anonymous accounts.”
The two former Twitter workers received cash and other rewards, such as an expensive watch, in exchange for the information they shared, the complaint says.
Abouammo later claimed the watch was worth £27,000 ($35,000) in communications with prospective buyers on Craigslist.org.
Twitter uncovered Alzabarah’s unauthorised access of private data and placed him on administrative leave in late 2015.
But not before he had tapped data from over 6,000 accounts, including 33 for which Saudi authorities had submitted law enforcement requests to Twitter, the complaint alleges.
Justice officials say that “this information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts.”
The Post says the Twitter workers appeared to have been cultivated by a senior Saudi official, alleged to be Bader al-Asaker, Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s close adviser who now heads the crown prince’s private office and charity.
“ROYAL FAMILY MEMBER-1”
The conflict — which has been raging since 2015 — has been dubbed a “proxy war” among competing powers in the Middle East as a Saudi-led coalition battles rebels backed by Iran, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people.
Plus, they’re still horrified at the 2018 murder at a Saudi consulate of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, 59, who had US residency and wrote for the Post.
A critic of Saudi Arabia’s government, he was chopped into pieces in a horrifying seven-minute execution.
Despite mounting criticism of the regime, US President Donald Trump has stood by the kingdom and its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The royal appears in the spy complaint as “Royal Family Member-1”.
Abouammo, who is an American citizen, was arrested in Seattle, Washington while the other two are presumed to be in Saudi Arabia, said justice officials.
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He was ordered to remain behind bars pending a detention hearing tomorrow.
Twitter says it’s grateful to the FBI and justice officials, as “we recognise the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service.”
A spokesman told the Post that Twitter allows “trained and vetted employees” limited access to sensitive account information.