Former Twitter employee sentenced to more than 3 years in prison for spying for Saudi Arabia

Pedestrians outside Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco on October 6, 2022.

David-Paul | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A former Twitter employee convicted of spying on users for the Saudi royal family has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

Ahmad Abouammo, a US-Lebanese dual citizen who helped oversee media partnerships for Twitter in the Middle East and North Africa, was part of a scheme to acquire users’ personal information, including phone numbers and dates of birth, for a Saudi government official. He was sentenced in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Wednesday.

The Justice Department said it believes another former Twitter employee accused of accessing user accounts and a man accused of aiding the Saudi government in the scheme fled to Saudi Arabia to evade US authorities.

The Saudi government severely punishes anti-government expression on social media sites like Twitter. In April, courts sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old Saudi citizen and mother of two, to 34 years in prison for tweets protesting the government.

According to the testimony of an FBI agent presented to the Northern District of California, a Saudi government agent began courting Abouammo in 2014 by buying him gifts and depositing money in his cousin’s bank account. Abouammo then began secretly accessing the accounts of users who were critical of the Saudi government and sharing their email addresses and phone numbers with the government agent.

The Saudi consulate did not respond to a request for comment.

Even after Abouammo quit Twitter in May 2015, he still helped the Saudi government by reaching out to former colleagues and encouraging them to verify particular Saudi accounts or delete posts that the Saudi agent flagged as violating terms of use of the site, the FBI agent said in their testimony. He received hundreds of thousands of dollars and used some of that money to put a down payment on a house in Seattle, Washington.

The indictment highlights the threat Twitter faces from foreign spies who see value in the information it stores about users and their direct communications.

All major tech companies can be targets for intelligence gathering, and Twitter has long been a particular target, functioning as a crucial platform for both protesters and dissidents around the world.

While Abouammo is the first person convicted and convicted of spying on Twitter on behalf of a foreign government, a former cybersecurity manager at the company testified that the company had previously been infiltrated by spies from at least least two other countries.

Whistleblower says Chinese government spy works on Twitter

Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, Twitter’s former chief security officer, filed a lengthy whistleblower complaint about the company with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission in July. In it, he said he believed the Indian, Nigerian and Russian governments had each tried to get Twitter to hire hand-picked people as full-time employees who would potentially spy on users.

Later, during his Senate testimony in September, Zatko said that before joining the company, the FBI warned staffers that Chinese intelligence services had likely infiltrated Twitter as well.

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