Federal prosecutors charged two former Twitter employees on Wednesday with using the company’s internal platform to spy on prominent Saudi Arabian dissidents for the Saudi government.
“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,” U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson said in a statement. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”
The two former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, worked with a Saudi middleman to access the personal information of thousands of accounts that the Saudi government had an active interest in, including that of prominent Saudi critic Omar Abdulaziz, who later became close to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was killed last year by order of the Saudi crown prince.
Abouammo was arrested Tuesday in San Francisco, while Alzabarah fled to Saudi Arabia after having been put on administrative leave by Twitter last December.
Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher with an expertise in Saudi Arabia, told the Post that the case “is incredibly significant.”
“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,” he said.
In response to the case, a Twitter spokesman, who spoke to the Post on the condition of anonymity “to protect the safety” of Twitter personnel, defended the company, saying that Twitter limits access to sensitive account information “to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.”
“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 spokesman said.