Two former employees of Twitter and a third man from Saudi Arabia face US charges of spying for the kingdom by digging up private user data and giving it to Saudi officials in exchange for payment, a complaint from the Department of Justice shows.
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 Kingdom of Saudi Arabia without registering as foreign agents, according to the complaint filed against them on Wednesday.
The indictment points an unusually public finger at Saudi Arabia, a US ally that maintains warm ties with President Donald Trump despite its spotty human rights record.
Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers are already deeply critical of Riyadh’s conduct of the war in Yemen and the 2018 murder at a Saudi consulate of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had US residency and wrote for the Washington Post.
Despite the pressure, Trump has stood by the kingdom and its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who appears in the complaint as Royal Family Member-1, according to the Washington Post, which initially reported the charges.
The charges also put Silicon Valley companies in the spotlight once again over how they protect the intimate details they collect about their users, including from employees with no legitimate reason for accessing the information.
According to the complaint, Abouammo repeatedly accessed the Twitter account of a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family in early 2015. At one instance, he was able to view the email address and telephone number associated with the account.
He also accessed the account of a second Saudi critic to get personally identifiable information.
Twitter uncovered Alzabarah’s unauthorized 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 said.
“This information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts,” the US Justice Department said in a news release.
Almutairi, for his part, is accused of acting as a go-between for the Saudi government and the Twitter employees.a