Twitter worker accused of spying for Saudi Arabia goes on trial

SAN FRANCISCO — While working at Twitter from 2013 to 2015, Ahmad Abouammo was responsible for helping celebrities, journalists and other notable figures in the Middle East promote their Twitter accounts. He handled requests for Twitter’s coveted blue verification badges and arranged tours of the San Francisco headquarters.

But the Justice Department says it misused its access to Twitter user data, gathering personal information from political dissidents and passing it to Saudi Arabia in exchange for a luxury watch and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mr. Abouammo, who is accused of acting as an agent of a foreign power within the United States, committing wire fraud and money laundering, will be tried this week in federal court in San Francisco.

“We hope to vindicate Mr. Abouammo and that he has his day in court,” said Angela Chuang, a lawyer representing him. The government expects Mr. Abouammo’s legal team to argue that he legally worked as a consultant to Saudi Arabia, according to a court filing. Ms. Chuang declined to comment on the legal strategy.

The case, which illustrates the Saudi government’s intensity in seeking information about its critics, unfolds at a sensitive point in US-Saudi diplomacy.

Last week, President Biden made his first visit as president to the kingdom, which he once vowed to turn into a “pariah,” in hopes of securing closer relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and easing high gas prices. Mr. Biden met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known by his initials MBS, and other Saudi officials. But human rights activists sharply criticized the visit, arguing that the president was overlooking the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was killed in 2018 by Saudi agents.

It’s also a tense time for Twitter, as the company faces increased scrutiny over its data security practices and wages a high-stakes legal battle against Elon Musk, who is seeking to back out of a deal to acquire the social media company. .

While Twitter has said it limited employee access to user data after Abouammo left the company in 2015, it has continued to struggle with security issues. In 2020, hackers hijacked the accounts of famous users, including Mr. Musk, to promote a cryptocurrency scam.

In May, Twitter agreed to pay a $150 million fine to settle charges that it misled users about how it treated their personal data. Twitter had told users it was collecting their email addresses and phone numbers to protect their accounts, but also used the information to help marketers target ads.

Mr. Abouammo was indicted in 2019 along with another former Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah. The Justice Department said the men had used their access to Twitter to obtain information on thousands of users and shared the information with Ahmed Almutairi, who the department said had served as an intermediary with Saudi officials. Mr. Almutairi previously ran a social media marketing company that worked for the Saudi royal family.

The men collected “private user data such as device identifiers, phone numbers, IP addresses, all of which could have been used by the Saudi government to identify and locate the people behind the accounts, including political dissidents,” the Justice Department said in a court filing.

When Twitter management confronted Alzabarah, he fled to Saudi Arabia, the Justice Department said. He and Almutairi continue to be wanted by US law enforcement. Mr. Abouammo, who briefly worked at Amazon after leaving Twitter, was arrested in Seattle in 2019. He is free on bail but traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area for trial.

In recent years, the Justice Department has cracked down on lobbyists and others who work to advance the interests of foreign governments but fail to disclose. For years, prosecutors had largely ignored these cases; from 1966 to 2015, the Justice Department prosecuted just seven cases under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires lobbyists to disclose their work on behalf of foreign governments.

One of the 6,000 Twitter accounts Alzabarah is accused of consulting on behalf of Saudi officials in 2015 belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi dissident and Khashoggi henchman, people familiar with the case said. Mr. Abdulaziz has sued Twitter for the violation; the case is in mediation, according to his attorneys and his court records.

“The problem is bigger than Abouammo,” said Behnam Gharagozli, Abdulaziz’s lawyer. “The problem is systemic here. The problem is the way data was handled back then.”

A Twitter spokeswoman said that “Twitter’s information security practices undergo rigorous audits by a third-party auditor, as has been the case since 2012.” She added: “Twitter’s investment in its security practices is longstanding, and those security practices are constantly evolving to meet new security challenges and deter and prevent internal and external wrongdoers. Twitter takes these threats very seriously.”

Mr. Abdulaziz, who lives in exile in Canada, has a YouTube channel and a popular Twitter account, where he shares satire and criticism of the Saudi government. “What happened as a result of this data sharing was that he went from being one of many prominent Saudi dissidents to one of a few,” Gharagozli said.

Gharagozli said family and friends of Abdulaziz who remained in Saudi Arabia were jailed, in what he called an attempted “torture by proxy” of Abdulaziz. A Saudi government spokeswoman declined to comment.

“What matters to Omar is that the platform is secure, or at least more secure in the future,” said Mark Kleiman, another lawyer for Abdulaziz. “He put it in a way that really impressed me from the beginning. He said: ‘Twitter is our Parliament. To have it permanently raided and occupied, which is essentially what has happened with the way MBS’s tech offensive has worked, is devastating.’”

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