SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A former Twitter employee accused of helping Saudi Arabia spy on its critics argued in court Wednesday that he cannot be prosecuted for wire fraud because Twitter’s private user data is not considered property under California law.
Ahmad Abouammo, who managed media partnerships for Twitter’s Middle East and North Africa region from November 2013 to May 2015, is accused of using his inside access to supply 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 virtual court hearing Wednesday, Abouammo’s public defender argued that because federal wire fraud laws do not define the term “property,” the court must look to state law for that definition. Recent court decisions say stolen information cannot be considered property in California unless it qualifies as a trade secret under state law, public defender Ellen Leonida argued.
Federal prosecutors say the Supreme Court addressed the issue in its 1987 ruling in Carpenter v. United States, holding that intangible confidential business information, such as the contents of a Wall Street Journal investment column at issue in the case, is considered property under the federal wire fraud statute.
“There’s a large line of cases including Carpenter, which finds that companies are defrauded of their information despite its intangible nature,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Sampson said. “They are not trade secret cases.”
Sampson added that even if private Twitter user data must be considered trade secret information, the government could easily make that case because the data is protected and Twitter derives economic value from it.
U.S. District Judge Edward Chen concurred.
“Isn’t customer information a classic form of trade secret type property,” Chen asked.
“Carpenter does not transform all information into property,” Leonida replied.
The public defender cited a 2016 decision by Chen’s colleague, U.S. District Judge William Orrick, in Planned Parenthood v. Center for Medical Progress. That ruling held that confidential information swiped by abortion opponents must be considered trade secrets under state law to qualify as property protected by the federal wire fraud statute.
Leonida also argued that the wire fraud charges should be dropped because prosecutors do not allege a specific instance in which her client shared private Twitter user data with Saudi Arabia.
Sampson countered that the government has ample circumstantial evidence, including phone calls between Abouammo and a Saudi official that were made not long after the defendant allegedly accessed two Saudi dissidents’ Twitter accounts.
“The government believes our evidence is strong, and that’s a reason to let the jury decide,” Sampson said.
The prosecutor added that because Abouammo is accused of taking part in a scheme to defraud Twitter, the government only needs to prove that he did at least one act in furtherance of the crime.
Chen said on Wednesday he would deny the defense’s motion to dismiss two counts of money laundering for lack of venue, but he ordered the government to file a document specifying where Abouammo was when he transferred alleged bribery money from one bank to another.
The judge also refused to dismiss wire fraud and money laundering charges as time barred. The defense argued that the government filed its superseding indictment in July 2020, more than five years after the alleged crimes took place. Chen found the filing of a criminal information prior to the indictment adequately put Abouammo on notice of the charges within the prescribed time limit.
Chen said he would take a second look at the motion to dismiss wire fraud claims based on whether user data is considered “property” under the law and whether Abouammo must face charges of honest services wire fraud for failing to report his unauthorized access of user accounts and receipt of gifts valued at $100 or more as required by Twitter’s employee policies.
Abouammo is accused of obtaining the email addresses and phone numbers 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.