SEVERE WX : Red Flag Warning View Alerts

Two former Twitter employees accused of spying for Saudi Arabia

Federal prosecutors accused two former Twitter employees of spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi national, and Ahmad A...

Posted: Nov 7, 2019 3:50 AM

Federal prosecutors accused two former Twitter employees of spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi national, and Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen, used their access at the social media giant to gather sensitive and nonpublic information on dissidents of the Saudi regime, the Justice Department alleged in a criminal complaint.

The case, unsealed in San Francisco federal court, underscores allegations the Saudi government tries to control anti-regime voices abroad. It also recalls a move reportedly directed by the country's controversial leader to weaponize online platforms against critics.

The accusations are certain to renew scrutiny of tech companies' abilities to protect the privacy of their users.

"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," US Attorney David Anderson said in a statement. "U.S. law protects U.S. companies from such an unlawful foreign intrusion. We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law."

A third man, Ahmed Almutairi, also from Saudi Arabia, allegedly acted as a go-between to the two Twitter employees and the Saudi government, which according to the complaint rewarded the men with hundreds of thousands of dollars and, for one man, a luxury Hublo watch.

While no Saudi government officials are named as running the spy operation in the complaint, the Washington Post, citing a person familiar with the case, reports a Saudi national who groomed the two employees is tied into the inner circle of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

All three men are charged with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government. Abouammo, the only one currently in US custody after his arrest in Seattle Tuesday, is also charged with attempting to obstruct the FBI's investigation by providing agents with a fake invoice.

Alzabarah and Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia and federal warrants have been issued for their arrests, the Justice Department said. Abouammo made an initial appearance in Seattle federal court Wednesday afternoon. It is not clear who is representing Abouammo, and CNN has been unable to locate Alzabarah and Almutairi for comment.

In a statement, Twitter said it "limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees."

"We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We're committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights," Twitter said.

CNN has reached out to the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, for comment.

In the 27-page criminal complaint, authorities detailed how Almutairi and another unnamed Saudi national with high-level ties to the kingdom allegedly courted and later directed the two Twitter employees.

Both Twitter employees allegedly conducted the surveillance in 2015 and left the company later that year.

According to the complaint, Alzabarah, a web engineer for the company, accessed data of over 6,000 Twitter users. Because of his role at the company, Alzabarah would have had access to the IP address of targeted users, as well as their email addresses, phone numbers and a log of all their actions on the platform at any given time, the Justice Department said.

Alzabarah described the level of detail he was able to glean on one user in a draft email, the text of which is included in the complaint.

"This one is a professional. He's a Saudi that uses encryption... We tracked him and found that 12 days ago he signed in once without encryption from IP [redacted] at 18:40 UTe on 05/25/2015. This one does not use a cell phone at all, just a browser. He's online right using Firefox form [sic] a windows machine," Alzabarah wrote, according to the complaint.

The Saudi government's alleged attempts to crush dissent exploded onto the world stage last year with the killing of prominent critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The CIA later concluded that bin Salman personally ordered the murder.

The Saudi government has repeatedly denied that the crown prince was involved in the killing.

According to the complaint, the unnamed Saudi national who helped groom and direct Alzabarah and Abouammo ran the private office of a Saudi royal family member, as well as a charity owned by the royal. The royal is not identified in court documents beyond "Royal Family Member 1," but the Washington Post, which first reported the charges against the Twitter employees Wednesday, said it was bin Salman, citing a person familiar with the case.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 193732

Reported Deaths: 2572
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah38352591
Washington25592233
Marion22026306
Clackamas17440214
Lane13007148
Jackson10862139
Deschutes896274
Umatilla820284
Linn492969
Yamhill446376
Klamath441164
Polk375752
Malheur351863
Josephine334570
Douglas327271
Benton310019
Jefferson219837
Coos206633
Columbia174427
Union144823
Lincoln137921
Wasco137728
Hood River118730
Crook111322
Morrow110716
Clatsop9858
Baker95414
Tillamook6493
Curry6469
Grant5095
Lake4517
Harney3448
Wallowa1845
Gilliam631
Sherman581
Wheeler321
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 3764405

Reported Deaths: 62573
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles123645624067
Riverside2994554594
San Bernardino2967824715
San Diego2785913729
Orange2709835026
Santa Clara1190642096
Kern1091771374
Sacramento1048401686
Fresno1018381688
Alameda879401657
Ventura810011013
San Joaquin732201391
Contra Costa68741805
Stanislaus621421061
Tulare49654839
Monterey43613383
San Mateo42038568
San Francisco36720544
Santa Barbara34337456
Solano32953252
Merced31898460
Sonoma30035320
Imperial28443726
Kings22989246
Placer22679292
San Luis Obispo21308260
Madera16462242
Santa Cruz16264207
Marin14056227
Yolo13910210
Shasta12152226
Butte12026199
El Dorado10168112
Napa987082
Sutter9433112
Yuba626847
San Benito606563
Lassen570624
Tehama557262
Nevada474275
Tuolumne413166
Mendocino410149
Humboldt404641
Amador365847
Lake347643
Glenn239125
Colusa223416
Siskiyou223424
Calaveras212954
Inyo142838
Del Norte13938
Mono12844
Plumas7106
Modoc4994
Mariposa4487
Trinity4005
Sierra1120
Alpine880
Unassigned520
Medford
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 78° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 74°
Brookings
Partly Cloudy
50° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 50°
Crater Lake
Partly Cloudy
74° wxIcon
Hi: 55° Lo: 35°
Feels Like: 74°
Grants Pass
Partly Cloudy
74° wxIcon
Hi: 78° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 74°
Klamath Falls
Partly Cloudy
70° wxIcon
Hi: 71° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 70°
Thunderstorm threat, critical fire danger this afternoon
KDRV Radar
KDRV Fire Danger
KDRV Weather Cam

Community Events

Latest Video

Image

Friday, May 14 morning weather

Image

Day two of manslaughter trial in fatal Medford road rage case

Image

Special bond fuels Abramson and Armantrout's CCC title run

Image

Thursday, May 13th Evening Weather

Image

HealthWatch: Signs and symptoms of a stroke

Image

HealthWatch: The importance of donating blood

Image

Pet of the Week: Cohen and Whiskers

Image

Thursday, May 13 morning weather

Image

Take a Hike: Panorama Point

Image

Take a Hike: Twilight Trail