A federal jury found a former Twitter worker guilty of spying for Saudi Arabia. The onetime social media employee used his position at the behest of the Saudi royal family to access the private data of users critical of the kingdom.
Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, served as media partnership manager for Twitter’s Middle East region, the Department of Justice said in a press release. In that capacity, he “took bribes in exchange for accessing, monitoring, and conveying the private information of Twitter users to officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Royal family,” the DOJ stated.
Abouammo was found guilty on six criminal counts, including acting as a foreign agent without registering with the U.S. government, conspiracy, wire fraud and international money laundering. He faces 10 years in prison for acting as a foreign agent and 20 years for each of the other counts.
According to the FBI, Abouammo and a Saudi citizen named Ali Alzabarah, who also worked at Twitter, used their jobs to access confidential user data, including email addresses, phone numbers and IP addresses, which can be used to find a user’s location, the Associated Press said. A third man, Saudi citizen Ahmed Al-Mutairi, was reportedly an intermediary between the Twitter employees and the House of Saud, which wanted to go after its critics.
The AP added that the DOJ said data from more than 6,000 Twitter accounts was accessed, including at least 30 usernames that Saudi law enforcement had requested from Twitter on an emergency disclosure basis.
“Abouammo acted in secret as an agent of a foreign government targeting dissenting voices,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said. “This verdict shows that the Justice Department will not tolerate any act of transnational repression and will hold accountable those who aid hostile regimes in extending their reach to our shores.”
U.S. Attorney Stephanie Hinds said, “Abouammo’s decision to accept bribes in exchange for providing to a foreign government the protected information of customers could have untold damaging consequences.”
And FBI Assistant Director Alan Kohler Jr. said that the FBI will never tolerate “attempts by foreign governments to hijack free speech.”
Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have long been linked through both energy and oil agreements as well as regional security arrangements, and this is the first time the kingdom has been formally accused of spying in America. The Saudi-U.S. alliance has been strained over the last few years with the Saudis’ documented efforts to track down and disappear its citizens living abroad who criticize the royal family. The Twitter case offers some insight into the country’s tactics in pursuing its critics.
Twitter did not respond to the AP’s requests for comment.