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Ex-Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia by accessing user accounts

One worker is accused of accessing the personal information of more than 6,000 Twitter accounts.

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Angela Lang/CNET

The US Justice Department has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia by accessing the personal information of thousands of Twitter users, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday.

The complaint raises concerns about whether Twitter is doing enough to safeguard the information of users critical of authoritarian regimes. It also sheds light on user information Twitter has access to, including logs of user activity, emails and phone numbers. 

One ex-employee, Ahmad Abouammo, faces allegations that he dug into several user accounts, including that of a prominent critic of the Saudi government. Abouammo, a US citizen who was arrested on Tuesday, managed Twitter's media partnerships for the Middle East and North Africa regions until 2015, according to the complaint. He worked with a Saudi official who allegedly rewarded him with a designer watch and at least $300,000. 

Abouammo was also accused of making false statements and falsifying an invoice when he was contacted by the FBI.

Another employee, Ali Alzabarah, allegedly worked with the same Saudi official and gained access to the personal information associated with more than 6,000 Twitter accounts. That included emails, phone numbers and internet protocol addresses. Alzabarah is a Saudi citizen and worked as a Twitter engineer whose job was to make sure the site was up and running.

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Federal officials say the defendants were acting under the direction and control of the government of Saudi Arabia.

"The FBI will not stand by and allow foreign governments to illegally exploit private user information from U.S. companies," said FBI Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett in a statement issued Thursday by the Department of Justice. "Insider threats pose a critical threat to American businesses and our national security."

The Washington Post reported that the personal information of Twitter user Omar Abdulaziz, who's been critical of the Saudi government and has more than 1 million followers, was accessed. Abdulaziz was close to Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose killing last year has been linked to the Saudi government.

The complaint doesn't name the Saudi official that the ex-Twitter employees were allegedly working with to access user information. But the Post, citing a person familiar with the case, reported that it was Bader Al Asaker, who had ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The CIA concluded last year the crown prince likely ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, but he's denied it. 

A Twitter spokesman said in a statement that the company has tools to protect the privacy of users who face risks when they share their views, but the company declined to share more information. 

"We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service," a Twitter spokesman said in a statement. "Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees."   

A third person, Ahmed Almutairi, has been accused of acting as an intermediary between the Saudi government and Twitter employees. Almutairi has also been charged with spying. 

Both ex-employees, as well as Asaker and Almutairi, couldn't be immediately reached for comment. 

Originally published Nov. 6, 2:43 p.m. PT.
Updates, 4:54 p.m.: Includes more information from the complaint and the Post; Nov. 7: Adds statement from the Department of Justice.