SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Two former Twitter employees face federal charges of misusing their access to users' private data to help Saudi Arabia spy on its critics.
Ali Alzabarah, 35, of Saudi Arabia, and Ahmad Abouammo, 41, of Seattle, Washington, worked for Twitter in 2014 and 2015 when they obtained private details, including IP addresses, email addresses and dates of birth, for Twitter users who wrote posts deemed critical of the regime, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday.
The type of information they are suspected of sharing could be used to identify and locate Twitter users, an especially troubling prospect after the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents in Turkey last year.
Lawsuits filed in Canada, England, Cyprus and Israel last year claim an Israeli company called NSO Group gave the Saudi government a powerful spying program called Pegasus, which allows the regime to target a user's phone and monitor all communications, including texts, emails and phone calls, and to turn the phones into surveillance devices by hijacking cameras and microphones.
"We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law," said David Anderson, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, in a statement Wednesday.
The Justice Department also accuses Ahmed Almutairi, a 30-year-old Saudi Arabian citizen, of persuading the two former employees to access and share users' private data in violation of Twitter's policies. The former employees received a luxury watch, cash and other benefits in exchange for their cooperation. Almutairi reportedly acted as "go-between," facilitating meetings and communications between the Saudi government and the ex-Twitter employees, according to the complaint.
Each defendant faces a maximum 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for failing to register as agents of a foreign government.
Abouammo faces an additional 20 years in prison and $250,000 fine for obstruction of justice. According to the complaint, he lied to FBI agents and provided a false invoice to show money he received from a Saudi official was for a consulting gig, rather than a bribe.
Abouammo received $300,000 in cash and a watch worth at least $20,000, but he told FBI agents the watch was worth $500 and he only received $100,000 for a consulting gig, according to the complaint.
Authorities arrested Abouammo in Seattle on Tuesday, where he was scheduled to make his first federal court appearance on Wednesday afternoon. Alzabarah and Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia, and federal warrants were issued for their arrest, according to the Justice Department.
In a statement Wednesday, Twitter thanked the Justice Department and FBI for their investigation and emphasized its commitment to protecting users' privacy.
"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," Twitter said in its statement.
Last month, Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident who was granted political asylum in Canada sued Twitter in San Francisco federal court, claiming the company allowed his private information to be stolen and compromised.Follow @NicholasIovino
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