Topline: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recruited two former Twitter employees to access private information from Twitter accounts to benefit the Saudi Royal Family and the Saudi government, according to Justice Department charges unsealed Wednesday, causing concerns that U.S. technology companies might be vulnerable to foreign governments.
- The Justice Department alleges that former Twitter employees Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, accessed Twitter data from critics of the Saudi government from the company’s office in San Francisco. The Washington Post first reported the charges.
- This is the first time authorities have publicly charged individuals for spying for Saudia Arabia in the U.S.
- The charges say that a Saudi official, who the Washington Post identified as Bader Al Asaker, approached the two employees and cultivated them as spies. Asaker leads a charity, the MiSK Foundation, belonging to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
- A third person, Ahmed Almutairi, was used as an intermediary between Asaker and the employees, the Justice Department said. He ran a social media marketing company that worked with the Saudi Royal Family and was also charged with espionage.
- One of the accounts access belonged to Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz, whose phone had also been hacked by the Saudi government, Forbes reported. Abdulaziz was in contact with Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally murdered by the Saudi
- Abouammo was arrested in Seattle, while authorities believe Alzabarah and Almutairi are in Saudi Arabia.
“We would like to thank the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for their support with this investigation. 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,” a Twitter spokesperson said.
Key background: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been accused of using technology to conduct a sophisticated spying operation aimed at dissidents before. It has previously purchased a program from Israeli cybersecurity company NSO Group to hack the phones of human rights workers, journalists and activists, Forbes reported last year, including those in contact with Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Further reading: Read the charges, which were obtained by the Washington Post, here.