US seeks to drop charges against former Twitter employees accused of spying for Saudi Arabia
Two former Twitter employees who were last fall charged with spying on behalf of the government of Saudi Arabia may have charges against them dropped at the recommendation of US prosecutors. It is unclear at this time why the US is pushing to have the case against the two men, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, dismissed. But lawyers in San Francisco submitted the recommendation to a judge on Tuesday. It has yet to be approved.
A third man, a Saudi citizen named Ahmed Almutairi, was also implicated in the operation as the recruiter who convinced Abouammo and Alzabarah to spy on Saudi dissidents using internal Twitter tools. Prosecutors are also recommending charges against him be dropped.
Twitter declined to comment for this story.
The operation is said to have run from November 2014 to May 2015, and it involved Abouammo and Alzabarah using Twitter credentials to glean email addresses, phone numbers, IP addresses, and other data from the accounts of those critical of the Saudi kingdom and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Bin Salman is later believed to be responsible for ordering the assassination of critic and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.
Only Abouammo, a US citizen, is in custody, having pled non-guilty after being arrested in Seattle, where he was then working for Microsoft, in November. Alzabarah fled the country in July 2015, while Almutairi remains in Saudi Arabia. All three were charged with acting as illegal foreign agents, and the FBI last fall released wanted posters for both of the at-large men believed to be residing in Saudi Arabia.
At the time, Twitter said it “limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” and that it understands “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.”
Earlier this month, Twitter suffered a colossal breach in which hackers were able to use internal company tools to reset and then take control of high-profile accounts, including those of notable tech entrepreneurs, politicians, and major corporations. The company and third-party investigators are now trying to piece together how the attack happened. But Twitter’s internal security has now come under fire for the number of employees who may have had access to such privileges and how employees and contractors potentially misused those tools in the past to spy on users, including celebrities like Beyoncé.
Twitter has so far admitted that the hackers used a “coordinated social engineering attack” on its employees to gain access to its systems, but it has yet to release any additional information about the attack, who may have committed it, and how.