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Ex-Twitter staffers charged with spying for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G20 summit in Buenos Aires, November 2018.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman speaking with a new friend at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, November 2018. (Image credit: Matias Lynch/Shutterstock)

Two former Twitter employees were secretly spies for Saudi Arabia and monitored the Twitter accounts of thousands of users, the Department of Justice said in a criminal complaint filed yesterday (Nov. 5).

U.S. citizen Ahmad Abouammo, who worked for Twitter as a "media partnerships manager," allegedly spied on three specific Twitter users, according to the complaint. Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen who worked for Twitter as a "site reliability engineer," is accused of accessing the personal details of more than 6,000 Twitter account on behalf of the Saudi government.

The story was first reported by The Washington Post

A third man, Saudi citizen Ahmed Almutairi, allegedly was the go-between between the two men and the Saudi government. Almutairi, who apparently worked for a social-media-marketing company tied to the Saudi royal family, is charged with espionage, as are Abouammo and Alzabarah.

The espionage is alleged to have been carried out from the fall of 2014 until December 2015. Abouammo quit Twitter in May 2015 but allegedly continued to secretly work for the government of Saudi Arabia. Alzabarah flew with his family from San Francisco to Saudi Arabia in December 2015 and allegedly quit his position with Twitter after his plane had left U.S. airspace.

On Twitter, Vice News' Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai brought up the possibility that the case is related to a notice Twitter emailed in December 2015 to a number of privacy advocates warning that their accounts had been "targeted by state-sponsored actors."

Under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has brutally crushed internal dissent in recent years, most notably with the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

The Post says that Mohammed bin Salman is the individual referred to as "Royal Family Member-1" in the criminal complaint against Abouammo, Alzabarah and Almutairi. The three were allegedly under the direction of another individual referred to as "Foreign Official-1", who himself was working for Royal Family Member-1.

Paul Wagenseil
Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and privacy. That's all he's going to tell you unless you meet him in person.