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International News

Two Former Twitter Employees Charged with Spying for Saudis

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Two Former Twitter Employees Charged with Spying for Saudis

2019-11-07 17:39:171 Oct 2018 01:53 AM EST

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Twitter (Image source: Public domain)

Saudi Arabia is turning out to have even more irons in the fire than anyone would have guessed. Along with everything else they have been behind, two former Twitter employees, Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, have been charged with spying for them.

Alzabarah advanced through the company as an engineer and eventually reached a standing to where he had access to personal information and account data of the social network's many users. 

Likewise, Abouammo was a media partnerships manager at Twitter and had access to email addresses and phone numbers attached to Twitter accounts.

The two were accused by the Justice Department this week of using their positions and access at Twitter to help Saudi Arabia. They gathered information on American citizens and Saudi dissidents who were against the kingdom and the leaders of the country. 

The two former employees were charged with acting as agents of a foreign power inside the United States.

This brings up questions about the security of American technology systems that have already taken a beating thanks to Facebook, who has been accused of spreading disinformation and influencing public opinion. 

This means not only do those using social media have to worry about being targeted by the spread of fake news and having their data sold, but they also have to worry that their data can be stolen and given to a foreign country.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and his advisers have been very active trying to keep their critics silent, especially after the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. 

It was known that Saudi operatives groomed Alzabarah, and even before he was charged on Wednesday he was suspected of spying on Twitter accounts to help the kingdom.

Both former employees left Twitter four years ago. A spokesman for the social media company 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." 

It's understandable how it can be attractive to foreign agents to use an American social media company for their own purposes.

"The U.S. has such a dominant position in social media and technology that we are a natural target for our enemies and frenemies," said former head of the Justice Department's computer crime division, Mark D. Rasch. 

"They will use any means at  their disposal to get individuals' data from U.S. companies for their intelligence and, in this case, suppression efforts."

A third man, Ahmed Almutairi, was also charged. He previously ran a social media marketing company that did work for the royal family in Saudi Arabia. Both he and Alzabarah are Saudi citizens, while Abouamma is an American. 

According to the complaint, Alzabarah and Abouamma began communicating with a Saudi official in 2014, yet investigators didn't contact Twitter until the end of 2015. They explained to executives that the Saudi government was grooming Twitter employees to collect information about the social network's users.

The Saudi official was the secretary general of a charitable organization that is owned by a member of the royal family, which makes it appear that the organization could be the technology-focused nonprofit MiSK Foundation that was founded by the crown prince. 

Saudi Secretary General Bader Al Asaker heads up MiSK, and a person familiar with the case said he was the one who groomed the Twitter employees.

One of the 6,000 Twitter accounts Alzabarah spied on for Saudi officials belonged to a prominent Saudi dissident and confident to Khashoggi, who is widely believed to have been killed in an operation led by the crown prince. 

He was placed on administrative leave while Twitter investigated the charges. While they didn't find direct evidence of his wrongdoing, he left the company anyway in December 2015, returned to Saudi Arabia, and joined the MiSK Foundation.

Almutairi served as an intermediary between Alzabarah and Saudi officials. He messaged his wife in May 2015 and said Almutairi asked him to travel to Washington to meet up with a director of a private office of a member of the Saudi royal family. 

He flew into the U.S. the next day but stayed less than 12 hours, communicating frequently with Almutairi, according to the complaint. He then began getting access to Twitter accounts within a week.

Abouamma also began exploiting his access to user data within a week of his meeting with a Saudi official in London in 2014. One of the users he gained access to was a critic of the Saudi royal family with more than one million Twitter followers. 

Abouamma was compensated for his work for the Saudi government in a series of wire transfers to him as well as a member of his family. In order to receive at least $300K from the Saudi government, he created a limited liability company.

While he left Twitter in May 2015, he passed on requests for data from the Saudi official to his former colleagues. He took a marketing job at Amazon in Seattle but left more than a year ago. 

Twitter received 93 emergency requests for user data from Saudi Arabia in the first six months of 2015, the time frame Alzabarah is accused of collecting information with his access. There were no information requests from Saudi Arabia that were disclosed in the first half of 2019.

Saudi officials hacked into Abdulaziz's phone in June 2018 using spyware it bought from NSO Group, an Israeli company. He sued NSO Group as well as Twitter two weeks ago, charging that the company didn't tell him that its employee had hacked his account. 

"The Saudi regime is trying to silence any voices for freedom or reform," said Alaa Mahajna, a human rights attorney who represents Abdulaziz.

As the saying goes, you're only as good as the company you keep. Donald Trump has made it known he will always give the Saudis the benefit of the doubt. Yet both he and they have been accused of doing illicit things for political gain. 

It would probably behoove him to not continue these types of relationships, barring everything else he has going on. When his "friends" are outed, it just makes things worse for him.

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