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US charges former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia

Suspects accessed confidential information of thousands of users, including accounts of prominent dissidents
Twitter welcomed the charges on Wednesday (Reuters/File photo)

The US government has charged three Saudis, including two former Twitter employees, with spying for Saudi Arabia, raising concerns about oppressive governments' efforts to infiltrate social media platforms to gather information about dissidents.

Two former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, accessed the confidential information of users, including the "user-provided email addresses, birthdates, phone number, and internet protocol (IP) addresses" on behalf of the Saudi government, US prosecutors said in a complaint unveiled on Wednesday.

A third Saudi citizen, Ahmed Almutairi, was also charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government without authorisation - for working as an intermediary between a Saudi official and Alzabarah and Abouammo.

The US government is accusing Alzabarah of accessing users' private information "en masse" in violation of Twitter's rules.

"Starting on May 21, 2015, through November 18, 2015, Alzabarah accessed without authorisation through Twitter's computer systems the Twitter 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," the complaint reads.

As for Abouammo, he mainly focused on an account referenced in the complaint as "Twitter user-1" and described as a critic of the Saudi royal with more than 1 million followers.

The Washington Post, which first reported the charges, identified "Twitter user-1" as @mujtahidd, an anonymous account that often reveals damning information about the Saudi royal family.

"Twitter user-1" was targeted by Alzabarah around the same time as well, according to the complaint. Alzabarah accessed the account's information in September 2015 before it reported that it was hacked later in the same month.

Alzabarah also accessed the information of a "well-known and influential critic of the government and Royal Family of Saudi Arabia with asylum in Canada".

The reference appears to describe Montreal-based Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who has been sounding the alarm for years about attempts by Saudi Arabia to spy on him.

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Last year, Abdulaziz sued Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, accusing it of hacking his phone in the summer of 2018.

Abdulaziz had exchanged more than 400 text messages with Jamal Khashoggi when his phone was hacked. Saudi government agents murdered the Washington Post journalist at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul later that year.

Saudi Arabia has also been accused of using troll accounts on social media to discredit critics.

"We will not allow US companies or US technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of US law," US Attorney David Anderson said in a statement on Wednesday.

For its part, Twitter welcomed the charges.

"We recognise 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 in a statement, as reported by the New York Times.

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond immediately to MEE's request for comment.