A former Twitter employee found guilty of spying on users on behalf of the Saudi royal family has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
Ahmad Abouammo, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen who helped oversee media partnerships for Twitter in the Middle East and North Africa, was part of a scheme to acquire the personal information of users, including phone numbers and birth dates, for a Saudi government agent. He was sentenced Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
The Justice Department has said it believes that another former Twitter employee accused of accessing user accounts and a man accused of helping the Saudi government with the scheme have fled to Saudi Arabia to evade American authorities.
The Saudi government severely penalizes anti-government expression on social media sites like Twitter. In April, courts sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi citizen and 34-year-old mother of two children, to 34 years in prison for tweets protesting the government.
According to testimony from 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 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 left Twitter in May 2015, he still helped the Saudi government by contacting former co-workers and encouraging them to verify particular Saudi accounts or remove posts that the Saudi agent highlighted as violating the site’s terms of service, 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 home in Seattle, Wash.
The indictment highlights the threat that Twitter faces from foreign spies who see value in the information it stores on 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 both for protesters and dissidents around the world.
While Abouammo is the first person found guilty and sentenced for spying on Twitter on behalf of a foreign government, a former head of cybersecurity at the company has testified that the company has previously been infiltrated by spies from at least two other countries.
Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, Twitter’s former head of security, filed a lengthy whistleblower complaint about the company submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission in July. In it, he said he believed the governments of India, Nigeria and Russia had each tried to get Twitter to hire hand-picked people as full-time employees who would potentially spy on users.
Later, when testifying before the Senate in September, Zatko said that before he came to the company, the FBI had warned staffers that Chinese intelligence had likely also infiltrated Twitter.