In advancing a criminal case against a former Twitter worker accused of helping Saudi Arabia spy on critics, a federal judge rejected arguments that private user data is not considered “property” under California state law.
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge on Wednesday refused to dismiss conspiracy and wire fraud charges against a former Twitter employee accused of using his inside access to help Saudi Arabia spy on its social media critics.
Ahmad Abouammo, who managed media partnerships for Twitter’s Middle East and North Africa region from November 2013 to May 2015, is accused of supplying Saudi Arabia with private information on dissidents in exchange for at least $100,000 in cash and a $20,000 watch.
Abouammo, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen and father of three in his early 40s who lives in Seattle, was arrested in November 2019 and released on bond following a protracted legal battle over his detention.
In a motion to dismiss filed last November, Abouammo argued that because confidential user data is not considered “property” under California state law, he cannot be charged with wire fraud for allegedly using deceptive means to deprive Twitter of its property.
In an 18-page ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen rejected that argument, finding the California labor code defines an employer’s property as “everything which an employee acquires by virtue of his employment,” except compensation for work, “whether acquired lawfully or unlawfully, or during or after the expiration of the term of his employment.”
The indictment alleged that by merely accessing private user data without proper authorization, Abouammo violated Twitter’s employment policies on the handling and protection of sensitive user data.
The judge found federal prosecutors adequately alleged that Abouammo made material misrepresentations or omissions to Twitter, a core element of the wire fraud charges.
“It is abundantly clear from the superseding indictment that Mr. Abouammo had a fiduciary duty not to disclose Twitter’s confidential user account information and to report any expensive gifts he received in exchange for that information,” Chen wrote.
Abouammo also asked the judge to dismiss bribery charges filed against him, arguing the government failed to specify precisely when and how he shared private information in exchange for kickbacks.
Prosecutors described 15 wire transmissions, including Twitter direct messages and phone calls exchanged between Abouammo and a Saudi official. But Abouammo said the government did not identify a specific instance in which he allegedly disclosed information to the foreign agent.
Chen concluded that the law does not require that level of specificity for bribery charges.
“Mr. Abouammo does not cite to any authority that requires the Government to identify exactly which of the fifteen wire transfers alleged in the superseding indictment provided the Saudi government with this confidential information,” Chen wrote.
The defendant further contended that prosecutors did not adequately allege he accepted payoffs from Saudi Arabia. Chen deemed that claim meritless, finding the indictment clearly states Abouammo received bribes in the form of a cash payment and a luxury watch.
“In sum, the superseding indictment sufficiently alleges a quid pro quo,” Chen wrote.
Chen also shot down Abouammo’s argument that the First Circuit’s 1997 decision in United States v. Czubinski established that “misconduct falling outside the scope of an employee’s job duties” cannot support a charge of honest services wire fraud, or bribery.
Chen found Abouammo misinterpreted the rationale for dismissing charges in that case, which involved an IRS employee accused of searching for and looking at private taxpayer information in violation of IRS rules. The charges in that case were dismissed not because the conduct fell outside the employee’s core duties but rather because the defendant “did not disclose taxpayers’ confidential information or use that information for any private gain,” Chen wrote.
Unlike that case, Abouammo is accused of trading his employer’s private data for personal gain, Chen concluded.
“The Court rejects Mr. Abouammo’s argument that his conduct could not constitute honest services fraud because sharing Twitter’s confidential user account information had nothing to do with his official duties at the company,” Chen wrote.
Abouammo’s public defender Angela Chuang and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California did not return emails requesting comment Wednesday.
Abouammo is accused of obtaining the phone numbers and email addresses of two vocal critics of Saudi Arabia without authorization from Twitter. His codefendant, former Twitter employee and Saudi citizen Ali Alzabarah, allegedly accessed more than 6,000 Twitter users’ private data, including information that can be used to identify and locate dissidents, such as IP addresses and dates of birth.
Alzabarah fled to Saudi Arabia after Twitter managers confronted him about the unauthorized access in December 2015.
The fact that Abouammo accessed only two user accounts compared to the 6,000 accessed by his codefendant was cited by Judge Chen as one of the factors supporting his release on a $50,000 bond in November 2019.
Abouammo faces 23 criminal counts, including acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, conspiring to commit wire fraud, aiding and abetting wire fraud, money laundering and falsifying records to obstruct an investigation.
Prosecutors say Abouammo lied to the FBI and provided a false invoice to show money he received from a Saudi official was for a consulting gig, rather than a bribe.
He faces 10 years in prison for acting as an unregistered foreign agent and 20 years in prison for each set of charges related to money laundering, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.