Federal prosecutors accused two former Twitter employees of spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.
Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi national, and Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen, allegedly used their access at the social media giant to gather sensitive and nonpublic information on dissidents of the Saudi regime, the Justice Department said in a criminal complaint.
The case, unsealed in San Francisco federal court, underscores the efforts by the Saudi government to control anti-regime voices abroad. It also recalls a move reportedly directed by the country’s controversial leader to weaponize online platforms against critics like Jamal Khashoggi.
The accusations are certain to renew scrutiny of tech companies’ abilities to protect the privacy of their users.
“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,” US Attorney David Anderson said in a statement. “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.”
A third man, Ahmed Almutairi, also from Saudi Arabia, allegedly acted as a go-between to the two Twitter employees and the Saudi government, which allegedly rewarded the men with hundreds of thousands of dollars and, for one man, a luxury Hublo watch.
All three men are charged with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government. Abouammo, the only one currently in US custody after his arrest in Seattle Tuesday, is also charged with attempting to obstruct the FBI’s investigation by providing agents with a fake invoice.
Alzabarah and Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia and federal warrants have been issued for their arrests, the Justice Department said. Abouammo made an initial appearance in Seattle federal court Wednesday afternoon. It is not clear who is representing him.
In a statement, Twitter said it “limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.”
“We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights,” Twitter said.
CNN has reached out to the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, for comment.