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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Twitter Worker Accused of Spying for Saudi Arabia Heads to Trial

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SAN FRANCISCO — While working at Twitter from 2013 to 2015, Ahmad Abouammo was responsible for helping celebrities, journalists and other notable figures in the Middle East promote their Twitter accounts. He handled requests for Twitter’s coveted blue verification badges and arranged tours of the San Francisco headquarters.

But the Justice Department says he misused his access to Twitter user data, gathering the personal information of political dissidents and passing it to Saudi Arabia in exchange for a luxury watch and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mr. Abouammo, who is charged with acting as an agent of a foreign power inside the United States, committing wire fraud and laundering money, is set to stand trial this week in federal court in San Francisco.

“We look forward to vindicating Mr. Abouammo and for him to have his day in court,” said Angela Chuang, a lawyer representing him. The government expects Mr. Abouammo’s legal team to argue that he worked lawfully as a consultant to Saudi Arabia, according to a court filing. Ms. Chuang declined to comment on legal strategy.

The case, which illustrates the Saudi government’s intensity in pursuing information about its critics, is unfolding at a delicate point in diplomacy between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Last week, President Biden made his first visit as president to the kingdom, which he had once vowed to make a “pariah,” in hopes of securing closer Saudi-Israeli relations and relief from high gas prices. Mr. Biden met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known by his initials, M.B.S., and other Saudi officials. But human rights activists sharply criticized the visit, arguing that the president was glossing over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was assassinated in 2018 by Saudi operatives.

It is also a fraught moment for Twitter, as the company faces heightened scrutiny over its data security practices and wages a high-stakes legal battle against Elon Musk, who is trying to back out of a deal to acquire the social media company.

While Twitter has said it limited employee access to user data after Mr. Abouammo departed the company in 2015, it has continued to struggle with security problems. In 2020, hackers hijacked the accounts of famous users, including Mr. Musk, to promote a cryptocurrency scam.

In May, Twitter agreed to pay a $150 million fine to settle charges that it misled users about how it treated their personal data. Twitter had told users that it was collecting their email addresses and phone numbers to protect their accounts, but also used the information to help marketers target ads.

Mr. Abouammo was charged in 2019 along with another former Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah. The Justice Department said the men had used their Twitter access to dig up information about thousands of users and shared the information with Ahmed Almutairi, who the department said had served as their go-between with Saudi officials. Mr. Almutairi previously ran a social media marketing company that did work for the Saudi royal family.

The men gathered “private user data, such as device identifiers, phone numbers, IP addresses, all of which could have been used by the Saudi government to identify and locate the individuals behind the accounts, including political dissidents,” the Justice Department said in a court filing.

When Twitter management confronted Mr. Alzabarah, he fled to Saudi Arabia, the Justice Department said. He and Mr. Almutairi remain wanted by U.S. law enforcement. Mr. Abouammo, who worked briefly at Amazon after leaving Twitter, was arrested in Seattle in 2019. He is free on bail but traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area for the trial.

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

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

“The problem is bigger than Abouammo,” said Behnam Gharagozli, a lawyer for Mr. Abdulaziz. “The problem is systemic here. The problem is the way the data was handled back then.”

A Twitter spokeswoman said that “Twitter’s information security practices undergo rigorous audits by an external auditor — as has been the case since 2012.” She added: “Twitter’s investment in its security practices is longstanding, and those security practices evolve constantly to meet new security challenges and to deter and prevent both external and potential internal bad actors. Twitter takes these threats extremely seriously.”

Mr. Abdulaziz, who lives in exile in Canada, hosts a YouTube channel and maintains a popular Twitter account, where he shares satire and criticism of the Saudi government. “What happened as a result of this data sharing was that he went from one of many prominent Saudi dissidents to one of a select few,” Mr. Gharagozli said.

Mr. Gharagozli said relatives and friends of Mr. Abdulaziz who remained in Saudi Arabia were imprisoned, in what he called an attempt at “torture by proxy” of Mr. Abdulaziz. A spokeswoman for the Saudi government declined to comment.

“What matters to Omar is the platform being safe, or at the very least safer, going forward,” said Mark Kleiman, another lawyer for Mr. Abdulaziz. “He put it in a way that really struck me early on. He said: ‘Twitter is our Parliament. To have it stormed and permanently occupied, which is essentially what has happened with the way M.B.S.’s tech offensive has worked, is devastating.’”



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