U.S. Charges Former Twitter Employees

The Justice Department has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia by accessing the company’s information on dissidents who use the platform, marking the first-time federal prosecutors have publicly accused the kingdom of running agents in the United States. The complaint filed in federal court in San Francisco accuses Ahmad Abouammo, Ali Alzabarah and Ahmed Almutairi of acting as illegal agents of a foreign government.

One of those implicated in the scheme, according to court papers, is an associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA has concluded likely ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year.

The case highlights the issue of foreign powers exploiting American social media platforms to identify critics and suppress their voices. And it raises concerns about the ability of Silicon Valley to protect the private information of dissidents and other users from repressive governments.

“The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known critics of the government and thousands of other Twitter users,” said David Anderson, U.S. attorney in San Francisco. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”

The charges are unusual because they allege wrongdoing by citizens of a close Middle Eastern ally of the U.S. and detail a sophisticated conspiracy to infiltrate Twitter’s workforce and leverage access to its systems to spy on individual users of the social-media platform. A Twitter spokesperson said the company restricts access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.

“We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service,” the spokesperson said. Mr. Alzabarah allegedly accessed the personal information of over 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015 on behalf of the Saudi government. Mr. Alzabarah’s job was website maintenance, prosecutors said, and didn’t involve accessing individual Twitter accounts.

U.S. authorities allege that in one instance Mr. Abouammo obtained the email address of a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family. The user had more than 1 million Twitter followers.

Todd “Bubba” Horwitz