The Justice Department has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia in a case that raises concerns about the ability of Silicon Valley to protect the private information of dissidents and other users from repressive governments.
The charges, unveiled Wednesday in San Francisco, came a day after the arrest of one of the former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen who is alleged to have spied on the accounts of three users — including one whose posts discussed the inner workings of the Saudi leadership — on behalf of the government in Riyadh.
Abouammo is also charged with falsifying an invoice to obstruct an FBI investigation.
The second former Twitter employee — Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen — was accused of accessing the personal information of more than 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015 on behalf of Saudi Arabia. One of those accounts belonged to a prominent dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, who later became close to Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was killed by Saudi government agents last year.
Prosecutors said a third individual, Saudi citizen Ahmed Almutairi, acted as an intermediary between Saudi officials and the Twitter employees. He is also charged with spying. Alzabarah and Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia. Analysts said it is the first time federal prosecutors have publicly accused Saudis of spying in the United States.
The case is noteworthy in that it targets a strategic Middle East ally, whose de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been linked by the CIA to Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. [Continue reading…]