US: Saudis recruited Twitter workers to spy on thousands of users
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US: Saudis recruited Twitter workers to spy on thousands of users

Accounts included those of a popular journalist with more than 1 million followers and other prominent government critics; one suspect fled to Saudi Arabia

Illustrative: A man reads Twitter at a coffee shop in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019.  (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Illustrative: A man reads Twitter at a coffee shop in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Saudi government recruited two Twitter employees to get personal account information of their critics, prosecutors said Wednesday.

A 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 thousands of Twitter accounts.

The accounts included those of a popular journalist with more than 1 million followers and other prominent government critics.

It also alleged that the employees — whose jobs did not require access to Twitter users’ private information — were rewarded with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funneled into secret bank accounts. They were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the US government.

Ahmad Abouammo, who left his job as the media partnership manager responsible for Twitter’s Middle East region in 2015, was also charged with falsifying documents and making false statements when questioned by FBI agents. He was expected to make his initial court appearance in Seattle federal court Wednesday afternoon.

That same year, investigators alleged that a Saudi working as a social media adviser for the Saudi royal family, recruited Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah by flying him to Washington, DC, for a private meeting with an unnamed member of the family.

“Within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse,” the complaint said.

The effort included the user data of over 6,000 Twitter users, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter, investigators said.

After being confronted by his supervisors at Twitter, Alzabarah allegedly admitted to accessing user data and said he did it out of curiosity.

Alzabarah was placed on administrative leave, his work-owned laptop was seized and he was escorted out of the office. The next day, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter and has not returned to the United States, investigators said. A warrant for his arrest was issued as part of the complaint.

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