The Department of Justice announced on Wednesday charges against two former Twitter employees for allegedly spying for Saudi Arabia which analysts believe is the first time that the United States government has accused Saudi Arabia of spying in the United States.
The two former Twitter employees that were charged are Ahmad Abouammo, who reportedly is a U.S. citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, who is a Saudi citizen.
In a statement, the DOJ wrote that the “information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts.”
Prosecutors alleged that Abouammo “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,” The Washington Post reported. Abouammo was also charged for allegedly “falsifying an invoice to obstruct an FBI investigation.
Prosecutors accused Alzabarah of “accessing the personal information of more than 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015 on behalf of Saudi Arabia,” The Post added. “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.”
A second Saudi national, Ahmed Almutairi, was also charged for allegedly spying as prosecutors say that he acted as a middle man between the Saudi government and the two Twitter employees.
U.S. Attorney David Anderson said, “The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users. We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”
Authorities believe that Alzabarah and Almutairi are both in Saudi Arabia while Abouammo was expected to make his initial appearance in federal court today in Seattle.
The Associated Press reports that the accounts “included those of a popular journalist with more than 1 million followers and other prominent government critics.”
“It also alleged that the employees — whose jobs did not require access to Twitter users’ private information — were rewarded with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funneled into secret bank accounts,” the AP added. “They were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government.”
Twitter has been under intense scrutiny recently as the company announced last month that it was banning all political advertisements on the platform.
“We’ll share the final policy by 11/15, including a few exceptions (ads in support of voter registration will still be allowed, for instance),” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stated last week. “We’ll start enforcing our new policy on 11/22 to provide current advertisers a notice period before this change goes into effect.”
Dorsey added: “A final note. This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.”
A final note. This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.
— jack 🌍🌏🌎 (@jack) October 30, 2019
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