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Saudi Arabia recruited Twitter workers to spy on users, feds say

Former Twitter workers accused of spying

San Francisco — Saudi Arabia's government recruited two Twitter employees to get personal account information on some of their critics, prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday.

A complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi government officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts. The accounts included those of a popular journalist with more than 1 million followers and other prominent government critics.

It also alleged that the employees — whose jobs did not require access to Twitter users' private information — were rewarded with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funneled into secret bank accounts. They were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government.

Ahmad Abouammo, who left his job as the media partnership manager responsible for Twitter's Middle East region in 2015, was also charged with falsifying documents and making false statements when questioned by FBI agents. He allegedly set up a limited liability company to receive $100,000 transmitted by a Saudi foreign official.

Within one week of his meeting the official in London, Abouammo started accessing private Twitter user information of interest to the Saudi royal family, prosecutors claim.

Abouammo, who is now listed as an inmate in the SeaTac federal detention center in Seattle, was expected to make his initial court appearance in federal court Wednesday afternoon.

In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson thanked the FBI and the Justice Department for their support in the investigation.

"We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service," the statement said. "Our company 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. We're committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights."

Thousands of Twitter users potentially compromised

Investigators also alleged that a Saudi working as a social media adviser for the Saudi royal family in 2015 recruited Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah by flying him to Washington, D.C., for a private meeting with an unnamed member of the family.

"Within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse," the complaint said.

The effort included the user data of over 6,000 Twitter users, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter, investigators said. 

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A Twitter security engineer told the FBI that Alzabarah, whose job was to maintain the site, had no "legitimate business purpose" to access the user accounts, according to the complaint.

After being confronted by his supervisors at Twitter, Alzabarah allegedly admitted to accessing user data and said he did it out of curiosity. Twitter then seized his work laptop and placed him on administrative leave, escorting him from the building.

The next day, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter, allegedly emailing Twitter his resignation while on the flight. Alzabarah has not returned to the U.S., investigators said. A warrant for his arrest was issued as part of the complaint.

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