Twitter employee accused of spying for Saudi Arabia to stand trial

SAN FRANCISCO. Working on Twitter from 2013 to 2015, Ahmad Abuammo helped celebrities, journalists and other high-profile figures in the Middle East promote their Twitter accounts. He handled requests for coveted blue Twitter verification badges and organized tours of the San Francisco headquarters.

But the Justice Department says he abused his access to Twitter user data. collection of personal information of political dissidents and hand them over to Saudi Arabia in exchange for luxury watches and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

mr. Abuammo, who is accused of acting as an agent of a foreign power in the United States, committing wire fraud and money laundering, will face trial in San Francisco federal court this week.

“We look forward to Mr. Abuammo’s acquittal and his day in court,” said Angela Chuang, representing his lawyer. The government expects Mr. Abuammo’s legal team to claim that he worked as a consultant in Saudi Arabia legally, according to the lawsuit. RS. Chuang declined to comment on the legal strategy.

The case, which illustrates the Saudi government’s insistence on gathering information about its critics, comes at a delicate moment in diplomacy between USA and Saudi Arabia.

Last week, President Biden made his first visit as president to the kingdom he once promised to make “outcast“In the hope of strengthening Saudi-Israeli relations and getting rid of high gas prices. mr. Betting with the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known by his initials, MBS and other Saudi Arabian officials. But human rights activists have sharply criticized the visit, alleging that the president is covering up the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was killed in 2018 by Saudi operatives.

It’s also a tough time for Twitter as the company faces increased scrutiny of its data security practices and pays high stakes. legal battle against Elon Muskwho is trying to back out of a deal to acquire a social media company.

Although Twitter said it restricted employee access to user data after Mr. Abuammo left the company in 2015, it continued to struggle with security concerns. In 2020 hackers hacked accounts of famous usersincluding Mr. Mask to promote cryptocurrency scams.

In May, Twitter agrees to pay $150 million fine to settle allegations that it misled users about how it handles their personal data. Twitter told users it collects their email addresses and phone numbers to secure their accounts, but also uses the information to help marketers target ads.

mr. Abuammo was indicted in 2019 along with fellow former Twitter employee Ali Alzabara. The Justice Department said the men used their Twitter access to find information on thousands of users and shared that information with Ahmed Almutairi, who the ministry said served as their go-between with Saudi officials. mr. Almutairi previously ran a social media marketing company that worked for the Saudi royal family.

The men collected “users’ personal data such as device IDs, phone numbers, IP addresses, all of which could be used by the Saudi Arabian government to identify and locate the individuals behind the accounts, including political dissidents,” the ministry said in a statement. justice. application to the court.

When Twitter executives clashed with Mr. Alzabarah, he fled to Saudi Arabia, the Justice Department said. He and Mr. Almutairi remain wanted by US law enforcement. mr. Abuammo, who briefly worked at Amazon after leaving Twitter, was arrested in Seattle in 2019. He is released on bail but traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area for trial.

In recent years, the Justice Department has cracked down on lobbyists and others who work for foreign governments but do not disclose it. For years, prosecutors largely ignored such cases; from 1966 to 2015 the Justice Department pursued only seven cases under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires lobbyists to disclose information about their work on behalf of foreign governments.

One of the 6,000 Twitter accounts that Mr. Al-Zabara is accused of looking at Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi dissident and confidant of Mr Saudi, on behalf of Saudi officials in 2015. Khashoggi people familiar with the case said. mr. Abdulaziz sued Twitter over infringement; the case is under mediation, according to his lawyers and court records.

“The problem is bigger than just Abuammo,” said Behnam Garagozli, Mr. Abuammo’s lawyer. Abdulaziz. “The problem here is systemic. The problem is how the data was processed back then.”

A spokesperson for Twitter said that “Twitter’s information security practices are being scrutinized by an external auditor, as they have been since 2012.” She added: “Twitter has a long history of investing in security practices, and these security practices are constantly evolving to meet new security challenges and deter and prevent both external and potential internal attackers. Twitter takes these threats very seriously.”

mr. Abdulaziz, who lives in exile in Canada, maintains a YouTube channel and maintains a popular Twitter account where he shares satire and criticism of the Saudi government. “As a result of the data exchange, he has gone from being one of many prominent Saudi dissidents to one of a select few,” he said. Garagozly said.

mr. Garagozly reported that relatives and friends of Mr. Abdulaziz, who remained in Saudi Arabia, were imprisoned for what he described as an attempt to “torture by proxy” of Mr. Abdulaziz. A Saudi government spokeswoman declined to comment.

“It’s important to Omar that the platform is secure, or at least more secure going forward,” said Mark Kleiman, another attorney for Mr Omar. Abdulaziz. “He put it in a way that really hit me in the beginning. He said: “Twitter is our Parliament. Its assault and permanent occupation, which is essentially what happened to the way the MBS tech offensive worked, is devastating.”