Two Twitter employees allowed themselves to be bribed and provided the royal family of Saudi Arabia with data on dissidents. A perpetrator was caught.
Ahmad Abouammo has been sentenced to a US federal prison for spying on Saudi dissidents. The former Twitter employee was royally bribed by the Saudi Arabian royal family for repeatedly collecting and revealing private data from Twitter accounts critical of the regime. For this, Abouammo was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on Thursday. Co-defendants Ali Hamad A Alzabarah and Ahmed Saad M Almutairi (Ahmed Aljbreen) are on the run.
Abouammo has citizenships in the United States and Lebanon. Even after he had switched to another company, he lobbied his former Twitter colleagues on behalf of the royal family to have Twitter accounts that were critical of the regime blocked. The Saudi regime rewarded the man with approximately $320,000. Confronted with the allegations by the FBI, the man lied to investigators and forged a document.
The November 2019 espionage charge against the former Twitter employee was followed by a jury conviction on August 9, 2022, on charges of unregistered agency work for a foreign government, fraud using telecommunications equipment, conspiracy to commit fraud, forgery of documents, and money laundering. The verdict followed on Thursday. At the end of March, Abouammo is due to be imprisoned. Three years of supervised freedom follow imprisonment.
Two FBI manhunts
His Twitter colleague Alzabarah is also accused of spying on Twitter users on behalf of the Saudi royals and of acting as an agent without mandatory registration. Intermediary Almutairi, better known as Ahmed Aljbreen, was charged with unregistered agent activity. Both are Saudi citizens and are believed to have fled to Saudi Arabia. The FBI has both of them wanted.
The espionage was apparently favored by inadequate security precautions on Twitter. For their actual tasks, the two Twitter employees had no need to access the private data of Twitter users. Nevertheless, they managed to do so without raising an alarm. Whistleblower Peiter Zatko, who was once responsible for IT security at Twitter, complains that Twitter is ten years behind when it comes to IT security. According to him, the People’s Republic of China and India each installed at least one spy on Twitter. In general, secret services don’t work properly without spies on Twitter, the whistleblower said in September.
FBI wanted poster for Ali Hamad A Alzabarah (Image: FBI)
None of this is stopping new Twitter owner Elon Musk from rolling out plans for comprehensive data collection, according to a report by Platformer to release stored telephone numbers to advertisers, and to accept individually tailored advertising in general. Currently, such advertising can be disabled in the settings.
Victim’s lawsuit fails
To make matters worse, Twitter did not warn those affected even after discovering the illegal access to user accounts. One of the critics of the regime concerned is Omar Abdulaziz, who has received asylum in Canada. His whereabouts may have been leaked through his Twitter logs, which could have had life-threatening consequences for him, his loved ones, or his associates. Abdulaziz was friends with journalist Jamal Khashoggi (correctly transliterated into German: Jamal Chaschukdschi), who was murdered on October 2, 2018, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Abdulaziz sued Twitter, to no avail. Because he could not prove any specific damage caused by Twitter’s negligence, the US District Court for Northern California dismissed the lawsuit in July 2021 due to Twitter’s lack of passive legitimacy. This procedure was Abdulaziz v. Twitter, Ref. 19-cv-06694.