US: Saudi Government Recruited Twitter Staff to Spy

The Saudi Arabian government recruited two former Twitter employees to spy on prominent critics of the regime, a new US complaint has alleged.

Prosecutors claimed in the newly released court documents that US citizen Ahmad Abouammo and Saudi Ali Alzabarah accessed personal information in over 6000 Twitter accounts back in 2015.

These included government critic and noted journalist, Omar Abdulaziz, who has over one million followers and was close to Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year, despite being a US citizen.

Although the duo’s jobs did not require access to user information, they were able to look up email addresses and even associated IP addresses, giving the Saudi government information on where the users were geographically located.

Abouammo was a media partnership manager for Twitter’s Middle East region, while Alzabarah was a site reliability engineer. Their intermediary is said to have been a Saudi named Ahmed Almutairi, who worked as a social media adviser to the royal family.

Reports suggest that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, implicated in the Khashoggi murder, is linked to the plot.

The complaint also alleged that the two defendants were paid handsomely for their efforts, in designer watches and tens of thousands of dollars placed into secret bank accounts.

After Alzabarah allegedly admitted to his boss that he had been spying on Twitter users, he was escorted out of the office. However, he is said to have flown to Saudi Arabia the next day with his family and not returned.

Twitter released a statement thanking the FBI and Department of Justice for their support with the investigation, and claiming that it limits access to sensitive account info “to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.”

“We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to to try and undermine our service,” it noted. “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.”

What’s Hot on Infosecurity Magazine?