Former Twitter Employee Convicted of Charges Related to Spying for Saudis

SAN FRANCISCO — A former Twitter employee was convicted on Tuesday by a jury in federal court of six charges related to accusations that he spied on the company’s users for Saudi Arabia.

While at Twitter, Ahmad Abouammo, 44, managed media partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa. He developed relationships with prominent individuals in the region, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars and a luxury watch from a top adviser to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. In return, prosecutors said, he shared the personal user information of dissidents with Saudi officials.

The jury convicted Mr. Abouammo of two counts of wire fraud or conspiracy to commit wire fraud, two counts of money laundering, one count of falsifying records and one count of acting as an agent of a foreign government without properly disclosing that work. It found Mr. Abouammo not guilty on five counts of wire fraud or conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

The verdict comes at a fraught moment between the United States and Saudi Arabia, as the United States seeks closer Saudi-Israeli relations and relief from high gas prices. President Biden made his first visit as president to the kingdom last month, setting aside a promise to make it a “pariah” and exchanging a fist bump with the crown prince.

The visit was sharply criticized by human rights activists who said it diminished the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was assassinated in 2018 by Saudi operatives.

Mr. Abouammo’s trial concluded on Thursday, and the jury of six men and five women took 17 hours to reach a verdict. On Monday, prosecutors and Mr. Abouammo’s lawyers agreed to allow 11 jurors to decide the case after the 12th member of the jury had been excused for testing positive for the coronavirus.

After the verdict was read on Tuesday, three jurors answered questions from the defense team, saying they had deliberated the longest over the charge that Mr. Abouammo had acted as an agent of a foreign government. The jury reached a unanimous decision on that count Tuesday morning, the jurors said. One juror told Mr. Abouammo’s lawyers that she wished Twitter had “a little more responsibility for this.”

A Twitter spokeswoman said the company had cooperated with law enforcement during the trial and had notified users who might have been affected.

Mr. Abouammo, who worked at Twitter from 2013 to 2015, was arrested in 2019. Ali Alzabarah, another former Twitter employee who was also charged in the scheme, fled the country before he could be arrested. Several of the charges of which Mr. Abouammo was acquitted were related to communications between Mr. Alzabarah and Saudi officials, suggesting that the jury was not convinced that Mr. Abouammo had influenced his co-worker’s actions.

Prosecutors described Mr. Abouammo as a mole who had sold his access to personal user information to Saudi Arabia.

“Power. Greed. Lies. You heard this story, told by the evidence, here in this courtroom,” said Eric Cheng, an assistant U.S. attorney, during closing statements.

In a statement, Stephanie Hinds, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, said, “In this case, the government demonstrated, and the jury found, that Abouammo violated a sacred trust to keep private personal information from Twitter’s customers and sold private customer information to a foreign government.”

She added, “As this case demonstrates, we will not tolerate the misuse of personal information or attempts by foreign governments to recruit secret, malign agents at American technology companies.”

Mr. Abouammo repeatedly looked up personal information for the Twitter user behind an account known as Mujtahidd, as well as for other dissidents, prosecutors said. The Mujtahidd account is critical of Saudi leadership and has more than two million followers on Twitter. Prosecutors said Saudi representatives had paid $300,000 to Mr. Abouammo for the information.

Seth Wilson, a Twitter security executive who testified at the trial that Mr. Abouammo’s accessing of users’ information had been inappropriate, tweeted his gratitude for the verdict. “Been a long road to get to this conviction,” Mr. Wilson wrote. “Appreciate the efforts of so many to see that justice was done.”

Lawyers for Mr. Abouammo described him as merely a Twitter employee who had been doing his job. Other media-partnerships managers at Twitter also developed close relationships with influential people who used the platform and provided white-glove service, helping them become verified on Twitter and handling their complaints about impersonators and troublesome accounts, Mr. Abouammo’s defense argued.

Prosecutors had not connected Mr. Abouammo’s accessing information and receiving payments with actual sharing of that information, his lawyers said.

“Even if you think Mr. Abouammo possibly or probably did it, you must vote not guilty,” said Angela Chuang, a federal public defender who represents Mr. Abouammo and a lead attorney in the case, during closing statements. Jerome Matthews, another lawyer for Mr. Abouammo, declined to comment on the verdict.

Twitter Worker Accused of Spying for Saudi Arabia Heads to Trial

SAN FRANCISCO — Whereas working at Twitter from 2013 to 2015, Ahmad Abouammo was chargeable for serving to celebrities, journalists and different notable figures within the Center East promote their Twitter accounts. He dealt with requests for Twitter’s coveted blue verification badges and organized excursions of the San Francisco headquarters.

However the Justice Division says he misused his entry to Twitter person information, gathering the private data of political dissidents and passing it to Saudi Arabia in trade for a luxurious watch and tons of of 1000’s of {dollars}.

Mr. Abouammo, who’s charged with appearing as an agent of a international energy inside the US, committing wire fraud and laundering cash, is ready to face trial this week in federal court docket in San Francisco.

“We sit up for vindicating Mr. Abouammo and for him to have his day in court docket,” stated Angela Chuang, a lawyer representing him. The federal government expects Mr. Abouammo’s authorized group to argue that he labored lawfully as a guide to Saudi Arabia, in keeping with a court docket submitting. Ms. Chuang declined to touch upon authorized technique.

The case, which illustrates the Saudi authorities’s depth in pursuing details about its critics, is unfolding at a fragile level in diplomacy between the US and Saudi Arabia.

Final week, President Biden made his first go to as president to the dominion, which he had as soon as vowed to make a “pariah,” in hopes of securing nearer Saudi-Israeli relations and reduction from excessive fuel costs. Mr. Biden met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, typically identified by his initials, M.B.S., and different Saudi officers. However human rights activists sharply criticized the go to, arguing that the president was glossing over the homicide of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Publish columnist who was assassinated in 2018 by Saudi operatives.

Additionally it is a fraught second for Twitter, as the corporate faces heightened scrutiny over its information safety practices and wages a high-stakes authorized battle towards Elon Musk, who’s making an attempt to again out of a deal to amass the social media firm.

Whereas Twitter has stated it restricted worker entry to person information after Mr. Abouammo departed the corporate in 2015, it has continued to battle with safety issues. In 2020, hackers hijacked the accounts of well-known customers, together with Mr. Musk, to advertise a cryptocurrency rip-off.

In Could, Twitter agreed to pay a $150 million tremendous to settle prices that it misled customers about the way it handled their private information. Twitter had advised customers that it was gathering their e-mail addresses and cellphone numbers to guard their accounts, but additionally used the knowledge to assist entrepreneurs goal advertisements.

Mr. Abouammo was charged in 2019 together with one other former Twitter worker, Ali Alzabarah. The Justice Division stated the lads had used their Twitter entry to dig up details about 1000’s of customers and shared the knowledge with Ahmed Almutairi, who the division stated had served as their go-between with Saudi officers. Mr. Almutairi beforehand ran a social media advertising firm that did work for the Saudi royal household.

The boys gathered “personal person information, corresponding to gadget identifiers, cellphone numbers, IP addresses, all of which might have been utilized by the Saudi authorities to determine and find the people behind the accounts, together with political dissidents,” the Justice Division stated in a court docket submitting.

When Twitter administration confronted Mr. Alzabarah, he fled to Saudi Arabia, the Justice Division stated. He and Mr. Almutairi stay needed by U.S. legislation enforcement. Mr. Abouammo, who labored briefly at Amazon after leaving Twitter, was arrested in Seattle in 2019. He’s free on bail however traveled to the San Francisco Bay Space for the trial.

In recent times, the Justice Division has cracked down on lobbyists and others who work to additional the pursuits of international governments however don’t disclose it. For years, prosecutors had largely ignored such circumstances; from 1966 till 2015, the Justice Division pursued solely seven circumstances beneath the International Brokers Registration Act, which requires lobbyists to reveal their work on behalf of international governments.

One of many 6,000 Twitter accounts that Mr. Alzabarah is accused of on behalf of Saudi officers in 2015 belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a outstanding Saudi dissident and confidant of Mr. Khashoggi, folks acquainted with the case stated. Mr. Abdulaziz has sued Twitter over the breach; the case is in mediation, in keeping with his attorneys and court docket data.

“The issue is larger than Abouammo,” stated Behnam Gharagozli, a lawyer for Mr. Abdulaziz. “The issue is systemic right here. The issue is the best way the information was dealt with again then.”

A Twitter spokeswoman stated that “Twitter’s data safety practices endure rigorous audits by an exterior auditor — as has been the case since 2012.” She added: “Twitter’s funding in its safety practices are longstanding, and people safety practices evolve consistently to satisfy new safety challenges and to discourage and forestall each exterior and potential inside dangerous actors. Twitter takes these threats extraordinarily severely.”

Mr. Abdulaziz, who lives in exile in Canada, hosts a YouTube channel and maintains a preferred Twitter account, the place he shares satire and criticism of the Saudi authorities. “What occurred because of this information sharing was that he went from one in every of many outstanding Saudi dissidents to one in every of a choose few,” Mr. Gharagozli stated.

Mr. Gharagozli stated family members and pals of Mr. Abdulaziz who remained in Saudi Arabia have been imprisoned, in what he known as an try at “torture by proxy” of Mr. Abdulaziz. A spokeswoman for the Saudi authorities declined to remark.

“What issues to Omar is the platform being protected, or on the very least safer, going ahead,” stated Mark Kleiman, one other lawyer for Mr. Abdulaziz. “He put it in a means that basically struck me early on. He stated: ‘Twitter is our Parliament. To have it stormed and completely occupied, which is actually what has occurred with the best way M.B.S.’s tech offensive has labored, is devastating.’”