Twitter employee may have spied on users for Saudis, says report

Intelligence officials alerted the social network in 2015, and it fired the worker, reports The New York Times.

CNET News staff

Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco.

James Martin/CNET

Western intelligence officials notified Twitter that an employee had been co-opted by Saudi Arabia several years ago to spy on the accounts of users critical of the government, The New York Times reported on Saturday.

Officials alerted Twitter to the alleged Saudi mole in late 2015, prompting the company to investigate, according to the Times report, which cited anonymous sources. Though Twitter couldn't find evidence the employee gave user data to the Saudis, it fired the worker in December 2015, the Times said. The same month, according to the paper, Twitter also alerted the owners of a few dozen accounts that they may have been targeted.

The Times report takes a broad look at alleged Saudi government efforts to silence dissidents on Twitter. Among other things, the Saudis have reportedly used paid troll armies to harass, threaten and shout down people who disapprove of the government, and to distract other users from discussions critical of the government.

The report is another example of the dark side of social media platforms, which can be manipulated to spread propaganda, misinformation and other disruptive messages. Twitter, Facebook, Google's YouTube and other services are all under the microscope in regard to efforts by state actors to meddle in rival countries' elections by way of social media.

Twitter declined to comment beyond the the Times report. The Saudi embassy in Washington didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.