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Former Twitter employees accused of spying on users for Saudis

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A federal complaint alleges that two former Twitter employees took bribes from a member of the Saudi royal family in exchange for improperly accessing user information to help the family and track critics, with one worker alleged to tell a foreign official that “we will delete evil my brother.”

The former employees, identified as Ali Alzabarah, 35, of Saudi Arabia, and Ahmad Abouammo, 41, of Seattle, were charged with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government, along with a 30-year-old Saudi national identified as Ahmed Almutairi. Abouammo was also charged with destroying, altering or falsifying records in a federal investigation.

The federal complaint describes members of the Saudi royal family and government anonymously, referring to “Royal Family Member-1” and “Foreign Official-1.” It describes initial contacts between Abuammo, a media partnerships manager for the company, and a PR firm representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

FBI Special Agent Letitia Wu notes in the affidavit that the royal family was “cultivat(ing)” employees at Twitter in 2014, when the scheme began to unfold. Through routine verification of a media personality, Abuammo made contact with members of the Saudi government, later hosting a group of Saudi entrepreneurs on a tour of the company’s San Francisco headquarters.

Around the same time, Abouammo met Almutairi, who came to the U.S. on a student visa to study English in the Bay Area but also worked for a Saudi social-media firm with ties to the Saudi royal family. Almutairi e-mailed, asking for an “urgent meeting” to discuss a “mutual interest.”

As a series of in-person and unofficial communications unfolded, Wu says, Abuammo helped get Twitter accounts verified on behalf of members of the Saudi royal family and government — and also improperly accessed email and phone information for an unidentified critic of the Saudi government, one with more than a million followers.

Eventually, Abuammo opened a bank account linked to a dummy corporation, and the unnamed official wired money both there and to a relative of Abuammo in Beirut.

The affidavit describes one sequence in March 2015 where the foreign official called Abuammo 14 times in two days; two days later, Abuammo sent the official a Twitter direct message stating that “proactive and reactively we will delete evil my brother.” Four days later, Abuammo received a wire transfer of just short of $10,000.

Eventually, Abuammo quit Twitter and moved to Seattle, but continued using his contacts at the company to act on behalf of the Saudis, according to the complaint. When interviewed by FBI agents, he lied about a $35,000 watch and about how much money he had gotten in the scheme, also producing forged documents to back up his lies, Wu writes.

In Alzabarah’s case, officials say he accessed information on thousands of users’ accounts, in many cases seemingly on behalf of Saudi law enforcement, which eventually began using Alzabarah as a workaround to Twitter’s emergency law-enforcement disclosure request process.

Alzabarah, a site engineer, would have had no legitimate reason to access individual users’ accounts in his work, according to the statement. Twitter has since implemented changes to internal policies limiting employees’ access to user data.

In early December 2015, Twitter officials confronted Alzabarah about his access. While telling Twitter he only did so out of fascination and expressing concern about his work-visa status, Alzabarah reached out to the Saudis for help fleeing the United States.

Twitter staff placed Alzabarah on administrative leave, seizing his work computer and escorting him from the building. The next day, Alzabarah flew with his wife and young daughter to Los Angeles, then to Saudi Arabia, sending Twitter a resignation letter in an in-flight e-mail.

In both cases, Almutairi is accused of acting as an intermediary for the unnamed foreign official; none of the three men had registered as agents of the Saudi government as of Nov. 1 of this year.

Although Alzabarah sought visas to return to the United States and eventually obtained one, he had not returned as of this May, the complaint said.

Authorities arrested Abouammo Tuesday in Seattle, and he was set to appear in a federal court Wednesday afternoon. Federal warrants have been issued for Alzabarah and Almutairi’s arrests.

If convicted, all three face maximum sentences of 10 years in prison and $250,000 fines. Abouammo could face another 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for obstruction of justice.

A report just this week by Human Rights Watch senior advisor Adam Coogler and intern Aaron Burroughs mentions Saudi officials’ ongoing efforts to target dissidents and critics of the state and royal family, including a former Saudi Federation for Cyber Security and Programming director who started a hashtag for Saudi citizens to suggest targets and bragged that authorities had methods to find Twitter users’ names and IP addresses.

Twitter emailed a statement Wednesday evening that read in part: “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.

“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. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.”

U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson added in his own statement: “U.S. law protects U.S. companies from such an unlawful foreign intrusion. We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”


©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.