Saudi Arabia Recruits Twitter Employees Charged For Spying
By Staff, Agencies
The Saudi government, frustrated by growing criticism of its leaders and policies on social media, recruited two Twitter employees to gather confidential personal information on thousands of accounts that included prominent opponents, prosecutors announced on Wednesday.
The complaint unsealed in US District Court in San Francisco detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi government officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of Twitter accounts, including email addresses linked to the accounts and internet protocol addresses that can give up a user's location.
The accounts included those of a popular critic of the government with more than one million followers and a news personality. Neither was named.
Two Saudi citizens and one US citizen worked together to unmask the ownership details behind dissident Twitter accounts on behalf of the government in Riyadh and the royal family, the US justice department said.
According to a court filing, they were guided by an unnamed Saudi official who worked for someone prosecutors designated "Royal Family Member-1," which The Washington Post reported was Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or MBS as he is commonly known.
Those charged were Twitter employees Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, along with Ahmed Almutairi, a marketing official with ties to the royal family.
"The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter's internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users," said US lawyer David Anderson.
"US law protects US companies from such an unlawful foreign intrusion. We will not allow US companies or US technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of US law," he said in a statement.
The lawsuit comes as US-Saudi relations continue to suffer strains over the brutal, Riyadh-sanctioned murder one year ago of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote for, among others, The Washington Post newspaper
A critic of MBS, Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
According to the Post, US intelligence has concluded that the prince himself was closely linked to the murder.
The criminal allegations reveal the extent the Saudi government went to control the flow of information on Twitter, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch.