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Why Twitter is caught up in a Saudi spying scandal

The Week logoThe Week 07-11-2019 Gabriel Power

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

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The government of Saudi Arabia recruited two Twitter employees to gather the personal account information of some of their political opponents, US federal prosecutors have alleged.

A complaint unsealed on Wednesday in a district court in San Francisco detailed what The Guardian calls a “coordinated effort by Saudi officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts”, including those of journalists and well-known outspoken critics.

The two former Twitter employees, both of whom are Saudi citizens, and one US citizen allegedly working with the pair, were understood to have collected data on behalf of the government in Riyadh and the Saudi royal family, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said. The US citizen was arrested this week while the other two men are currently in Saudi Arabia.

“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,” US lawyer David Anderson said on Wednesday, reports CNN. “US law protects US companies from such an unlawful foreign intrusion.”

What has Saudi Arabia allegedly done and why does it matter?

How did this all begin?

According to Al Jazeera, Twitter is the “main place for Saudis to express their views”, with around a third of the nation’s 30 million people being active users.

“But the free-wheeling nature of Twitter is a major source of concern for the authoritarian regime,” the broadcaster says. “The government has used different tactics to control speech and keep reformers and others from organising, including employing troll armies to harass and intimidate users online. It has even arrested and imprisoned Twitter users.”

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 15: Chief executive officer of Twitter Inc. and Square Inc. Jack Dorsey arrives to attend the "Tech for Good" Summit at Hotel de Marigny on May 15, 2019 in Paris, France. The second edition of the "Tech for Good Summit " launched by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 brings together more than 80 leaders of large companies, startups and players in the global digital ecosystem to discuss the contribution of technology to the common good and the collective fight against digital threats. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images) © 2019 Chesnot PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 15: Chief executive officer of Twitter Inc. and Square Inc. Jack Dorsey arrives to attend the "Tech for Good" Summit at Hotel de Marigny on May 15, 2019 in Paris, France. The second edition of the "Tech for Good Summit " launched by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 brings together more than 80 leaders of large companies, startups and players in the global digital ecosystem to discuss the contribution of technology to the common good and the collective fight against digital threats. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

According to the DOJ, two former Twitter employees Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo had, during their time at the company, been secretly also working for someone US prosecutors have designated “Royal Family Member-1”, which the Washington Post reports is a codename for Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

The court documents reveal that in April 2014, Abouammo, a US citizen working at Twitter’s office in San Francisco, “was assigned the task of giving a Saudi news journalist a verified blue-tick on their profile”, The Register reports, and that “through this effort, Abouammo wound up getting friendly with the personality’s PR firm, the Saudi Arabian embassy”.

Eventually he was invited to meet an unnamed foreign official who cultivated him as a spy for the Saudi government. This figure is thought to be Bader al-Asaker, who leads a charity, the MiSK Foundation, belonging to the Saudi Crown Prince. 

KRAKOW, POLAND - 2019/02/10: Twitter logos are seen on an android mobile phone. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) © 2019 SOPA Images KRAKOW, POLAND - 2019/02/10: Twitter logos are seen on an android mobile phone. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Ahmed Almutairi, a principal executive in a social media marketing company that works for the Saudi royal family, was drafted in as a go-between between the official and Abouammo, and the trio struck a deal in which Abouammo would breach Twitter protocol and access the private data of the Saudi government’s political opponents, and in return was rewarded with a designer watch and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars funnelled into secret bank accounts.

Alzabarah was allegedly contacted by Almutairi and drafted into the operation around a year later in early 2015, and ended up siphoning the details of at least 6,000 Twitter users. According to the Guardian, that same year Alzabarah admitted to his supervisors that he accessed user data and said he did it out of curiosity. He was immediately put on administrative leave and subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia the next day.

How were they found out?

Police allegedly spoke to Abouammo at his home in Seattle after investigators noticed that a cash payment of $100,000 had been wired to a bank account in Lebanon from which Abouammo would transfer funds to an account in the US.

FILE - This July 9, 2019, file photo shows pedestrians walking across the street from the Twitter office building in San Francisco. The Saudi government recruited two Twitter employees to get personal account information of their critics, prosecutors said Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File) © ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE - This July 9, 2019, file photo shows pedestrians walking across the street from the Twitter office building in San Francisco. The Saudi government recruited two Twitter employees to get personal account information of their critics, prosecutors said Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

When questioned about the money, Abouammo said he had earned it from a consulting contract and produced an invoice for his supposed consulting work, which the FBI deemed to have been faked. He was subsequently arrested on Tuesday this week, and charged with spying and falsifying an invoice to obstruct an FBI investigation. 

An arrest warrant was also issued for Alzabarah and Almutairi, both of whom are understood to still be in Saudi Arabia.

Why is this important?

According to CNN, the Saudi government’s alleged “attempts to crush dissent exploded onto the world stage last year with the killing of prominent critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi”, the murder of whom the CIA later concluded was orchestrated by bin Salman personally.

A message from the Twitter communications department confirming the hacking of co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey's Twitter account and his postings is seen on a mobile phone held in front of Dorsey's twitter feed displayed on a computer screen in this photo illustration taken in Washington, U.S. August 30, 2019.   REUTERS/Jim Bourg © Thomson Reuters A message from the Twitter communications department confirming the hacking of co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey's Twitter account and his postings is seen on a mobile phone held in front of Dorsey's twitter feed displayed on a computer screen in this photo illustration taken in Washington, U.S. August 30, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

As a result, journalists speaking out against the Saudi regime will no doubt be concerned over the news that one of the accounts targeted by the Saudi Twitter employees belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a political activist who was friends with Khashoggi. According to Forbes, Abdulaziz’s phone was also hacked by the Saudi government.

Furthermore, the complaint marks the first time that the Saudi government, a close Washington ally, has been accused of spying in the US.

Twitter thanked the FBI and the DOJ, saying: “We recognise the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service.”

“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.”

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