Saudis recruited Twitter workers to spy on critics of Saudi regime, U.S. charges

A criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday in San Francisco detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi officials to recruit employees at the social media giant.

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By Andrew Blankstein and Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Federal prosecutors in San Francisco charged two former Twitter employees and a Saudi national with a plot to provide the Saudi government with information about Twitter users, including critics of the Saudi government.

The arrests are the result of a multi-year investigation led by the FBI's San Francisco Field Office.

The complaint unsealed Wednesday detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts.

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Ali Alzabarah, 35, of Saudi Arabia, and Ahmad Abouammo, 41, of Seattle were Twitter employees. According to the complaint, between November 2014 and May 2015, Ahmed Almutairi, 30, of Saudi Arabia, and Saudi officials convinced the two men to use their employee credentials to access nonpublic information about the individuals behind certain Twitter accounts.

The Saudis sought email addresses, IP addresses, and dates of birth for individuals who had published posts deemed by the kingdom's royal family to be critical of the regime, according to the complaint.

The accounts included those of a popular journalist with more than 1 million followers and other prominent government critics.

It also alleged that the employees — whose jobs did not require access to Twitter users' private information — were rewarded with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funneled into secret bank accounts.

Officials with the FBI's Seattle Field office arrested Abouammo Tuesday. He made his initial appearance in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Washington. A bail hearing is scheduled for Friday.

Alzabarah, Abouammo, and Almutairi, who is also known as Ahmed Aljbreen, were charged with fraudulently accessing private information and acting as illegal agents of a foreign government. Abouammo is also charged with destroying, altering, or falsifying records in a federal investigation.

"The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter's internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users," said David Anderson, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California. "U.S. law protects U.S. companies from such an unlawful foreign intrusion. We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law."