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.’”

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