SAN FRANCISCO – Two Twitter employees have been charged with acting as unregistered agents for Saudi Arabia after its government recruited them to spy on the kingdom’s critics.
In a complaint unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, federal prosecutors allege the Saudis paid the employees tens of thousands of dollars through secret bank accounts to entice them to snoop on the private information of more than 6,000 Twitter users.
They included prominent critics of the Saudi government and a journalist with more than 1 million followers.
The complaint also alleges that Ahmad Abouammo, who left his job as the media partnership manager responsible for Twitter’s Middle East region in 2015, falsified documents and lied to FBI agents when they questioned him at his Seattle home.
Abouammo appeared Wednesday in Seattle federal court and was ordered to remain in custody at least until a detention hearing Friday.
Investigators said that in 2015 the Saudis arranged for Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah to meet a member of the royal family in Washington, D.C., and “within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse.’’
After he was caught, Alzabarah told Twitter officials he looked up the information out of curiosity. He was placed on administrative leave and had his company-issued laptop taken away.
The complaint says Alzabarah flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter the next day and has not returned to the U.S. A warrant for his arrest has been issued.
Twitter issued a statement saying it cooperated with the investigation, adding that it recognizes “the length bad actors will go to try and undermine” its service, and that there are tools in place to protect users with sensitive accounts.
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That didn’t satisfy some industry observers, including Mike Chapple, associate teaching professor of IT, analytics and operations at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
Chapple said the social media company failed to adhere to the basic IT security principle of granting employees the minimum level of access to perform their duties.
“We learned today that Twitter failed to live up to industry standard cybersecurity practices,” Chapple said via e-mail. “Both of the accused individuals accessed information about private individuals that they had no legitimate need to view as part of their job responsibilities.”
Chapple added that this is only the latest proof of the interest foreign governments have in acquiring personal information about American residents, including their phone numbers and physical location.
The Saudi government had no immediate comment through its embassy in Washington.
Saudi Arabia has gone to extreme measures to repress dissent, most notably with its involvement in the killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018.
Contributing: The Associated Press