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Former Twitter Employees Charged With Spying for Saudi Arabia, Hacker News

Former Twitter Employees Charged With Spying for Saudi Arabia, Hacker News

Technology|Former Twitter Employees Charged With Spying for Saudi Arabia

The Justice Department’s charges raised questions about the security of technology companies.

Credit …Jim Wilson / The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO – The Justice Department charged two former Twitter employees on Wednesday with exploiting their access to the company’s internal systems to help Saudi Arabia, raising questions about the security of technology companies as they grapple with scrutiny forspreading disinformationand influencing public opinion.

In its complaint, the Justice Department charged Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, both of whom previously worked at Twitter. Mr. Alzabarah is a Saudi citizen, and Mr. Abouammo is an American, the complaint said.

A third person, Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi citizen, was also charged. Mr. Almutairi previously ran a social media marketing company that did work for the Saudi royal family, according to the complaint.

The case is the first time federal prosecutors have charged Saudis with acting as agents of a foreign power inside the United States. It underscores the broad online effort thatCrown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and his close advisershave conducted to silence critics both inside the kingdom and abroad.

Last year, The New York Times reported that Saudi operatives hadgroomed a Saudi employee at Twitterwhom Western intelligence officials suspected of spying on user accounts to help the Saudi leadership. Saudi operatives have also used Twitter to harass critics. Twitter has been a popular platform for news in the kingdom since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2010.

The case adds a new facet to the scrutiny of social media platforms, which are under pressure for distributing disinformation and being misused to influence elections. The charges on Wednesday show that these companies can be penetrated from the inside as well.

In a statement, a Twitter spokesman thanked the Justice Department and F.B.I. and said: “We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service. Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees. ”The company said it was committed to protecting those who used the service to talk about freedom and human rights.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment. The Washington Postearlier reportedon the charges.

The FBI began monitoring the Twitter employees in 2014, according to the complaint. Investigators did not contact Twitter until the end of 2015, when they informed executives that the Saudi government was grooming employees to gain information about the company’s users.

Mr. Alzabarah had joined Twitter in 2013, rising through the ranks of the engineering division to a position that gave him access to personal information and account data of Twitter customers. That included users’ telephone numbers and I.P. addresses – unique identification numbers for internet-connected devices.

During his employment at Twitter, Mr. Alzabarah had grown increasingly close to Saudi intelligence operatives, Western intelligence officials told executives. The operatives eventually persuaded Alzabarah to peer into the accounts of users they sought information on, including dissidents and activists who spoke against the crown, multiple people have told The Times.

Once Twitter was notified of the breach of security, it placed Mr. Alzabarah on administrative leave while it investigated the matter. Though Twitter did not find direct evidence that Mr. Alzabarah had handed data over to the Saudi kingdom, he left the company in December

Mr. Alzabarah eventually returned to Saudi Arabia, where he joined the MiSK Foundation, a tech-centric nonprofit.

Mr. Abouammo, a media partnerships manager at Twitter, began getting access to user data within a week after meeting with an unnamed Saudi official in London in 2014, according to the complaint. One of the users was a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family and had more than one million followers on Twitter.

Mr. Abouammo looked up the user’s email address, according to the complaint. He later got the email addresses and phone numbers of other Saudi critics, the complaint said.

The Saudi government compensated Mr. Abouammo for his work in a series of wire transfers to him and a member of his family, the complaint said. He and his family members received at least $ 300, 00 0. Mr. Abouammo quit his job at Twitter in May 2015 but continued to pass on requests to his former colleagues at the behest of the Saudi official, according to the complaint. He has since moved to Seattle for a marketing job at Amazon.

Kate Conger and Mike Isaac reported from San Francisco, and Katie Benner from Washington. Nicole Perlroth contributed reporting from San Francisco.

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