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Trial of ex-Twitter employee accused of spying for Saudi Arabia opens

Helping the Saudi government root out dissidents or cultivating business relationships? A federal jury will decide.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — In December 2014, Ahmad Abouammo, a manager of social media partnerships for Twitter, met in London with a high-level official for the government of Saudi Arabia. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Saudi official wanted to discuss a Twitter account belonging to an anonymous activist who tweets critically about the Saudi royal family under the handle @Mujtahidd. Abouammo, whose job at Twitter gave him access to the personal information of its users, might be able to help.

A day later, the Saudi official had his mole and Abouammo returned to San Francisco with a luxury watch, prosecutors said Thursday at the opening of Abouammo’s criminal trial in federal court.

Abouammo, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen, stands accused of abusing his inside access at Twitter to supply Saudi Arabia with private information on its critics — including their phone numbers, email addresses and locations. He faces charges of acting as an agent of a foreign power inside the United States, wire and honest services fraud, laundering money internationally, and fabricating evidence.

“Power. Greed. Lies. This will be the story told by the evidence. It is one in which defendant Ahmad Abouammo, for a six-figure sum, joined a scheme to cheat his employer by selling access to insider information of accounts he was supposed to protect, at the direction of officials of a foreign government,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Sampson said in his opening statement to a 12-member jury Thursday morning. “When his scheme was exposed, the defendant engaged in lies and a cover-up.”

Sampson said Abouammo met Bader Binsaker (Bader Al-Asaker) in June 2014 when the top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman toured Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters with a group of young Saudi entrepreneurs sponsored by the Prince Salman Youth Center.

For Al-Asaker, Abouammo was an important contact, as he managed media partnerships for Twitter’s Middle East and North Africa region and was one of the only Arabic speakers at the company. “He wanted to recruit a mole,” Sampson said.

Sampson said Al-Asaker “wanted someone to keep tabs on @Mujtahidd,” and that Abouammo accessed the account seven times between December 2014 and the end of February 2015 using Twitter’s internal “profile viewer” tool.

Yoel Roth, head of safety and integrity at Twitter, said on the stand that Abouammo would have no legitimate business reason to access an account using profile viewer. “If an account hasn't recently been active on Twitter its handle is eligible to be reclaimed and assigned to another user. That's the only circumstance under which a member of the social media partnerships team would need to use profile viewer,” he said.

Roth also said the company has a policy against employees receiving gifts worth more than $100.

Sampson said the watch, a Hublot that Abouammo later tried to sell on Craiglist for $20,000, was “just a down payment.” He told jurors that Abouammo received at least $300,000 from Al-Asaker through payments wired to Abouammo’s father’s bank account in Lebanon.

According to a federal indictment, Abouammo quit Twitter in 2015 and went to work for Amazon in Seattle, but he continued to field requests to shut down certain Twitter accounts and help get Saudi government officials verified by contacting his former colleagues on Al-Asaker’s behalf.

“He went on about his life as if he’d gotten away with it,” Sampson said.

But in 2018, when the FBI paid Abouammo a visit in Seattle, Sampson said Abouammo excused himself from the room and quickly faked up an invoice to show that money he received from Al-Asaker was for a consulting gig, rather than a bribe. When asked about the watch, prosecutors say Abouammo said it was a “junky” Halo timepiece worth only $500.

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“He did it to cover his tracks to conceal the truth that he had joined in the scheme to take bribes from Binsaker,” Sampson said.

In 2019, Abouammo was charged along with a co-worker named Ali Alzabarah, a Twitter site engineer who allegedly accessed the private data of over 6,000 users which he later shared with with Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi government intermediary who had also connected with Abouammo.

Sampson said Alzabarah wanted a job in Saudi Arabia and met with Almutairi and Al-Asakser in Washington, D.C. He said that according to digital notes kept by Al-Asaker, he had a “shopping list” of Twitter users he wanted Alzabarah to look up. “He wrote down information about Twitter users that could only come from an insider, like their IP address where users were, whether they were using a computer or cellphone, and in one case a user's suspected real name,” Sampson said.

Alzabarah, who allegedly worked most closely with Almutairi, fled to Saudi Arabia after he was confronted by his employer. He now works for the government of Saudi Arabia and remains at large. Almutairi is also wanted by the FBI for failing to register as a foreign agent.

Abouammo’s federal public defender Jerome Matthews said there is no evidence that Abouammo showed private user data to anyone. “The government’s case is basically little snippets of information that they've tried to build a case around,” he told the jury. “The government was pretty sloppy to let these co-defendants out of the country without stopping them. The person taking the fall is sitting at the defense table.”

Matthews said Abouammo was only doing his job, advancing the U.S. and Twitter’s interests in the region, and that in November 2014, the FBI hosted a meeting between Saudi officials and Twitter higher-ups about how Twitter was not doing a good enough job rooting out things like terroristic threats on the platform.

“Twitter promised it was going to put in place an action plan to make the company as a whole more responsive to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Matthews said. “Did Mr. Abouammo and Mr. Binsaker have a working business relationship? Yes they did. And it was entirely legal and entirely proper and most importantly, part of Mr Abouammo’s 's job.”

He said Abouammo met with Al-Askaer in London where he was attending a media partnership manager summit to “cultivate trust.”

“Was Mr. Abouammo given an expensive watch? Yes he was. It was a very generous show by Mr. Binsaker, and it's a type of thing that occurs in normal business relationships.”

Abouammo faces 10 years in prison if convicted of 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.

The trial is expected to last two weeks, transpiring just as the social media giant faces a fierce legal battle with Elon Musk over a failed acquisition deal and increasing scrutiny over data privacy.

Twitter recently agreed to pay a $150 million fine to settle claims that it deceived users about how it uses their personal information. Twitter told users that it collected phone numbers and email addresses to protect their accounts from hackers without also disclosing that it used the information to help third-party companies target them with ads.

In his opening statement, Matthews said the Saudi debacle further tarnishes the company’s image. “Obviously this is a PR disaster for Twitter,” Matthews told the jury.

Matthews also asked Roth on cross-examination about the settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.

“Twitter doesn't sell specific things like email address and phone numbers,” Roth said.

Matthews asked if he knew that the FTC settlement concerned Twitter using the information to sell advertisements.

“I'm not an expert on the FTC settlement, but my understanding is broadly yes, that's accurate,” Roth said.

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