SAN FRANCISCO — While at Twitter from 2013 to 2015, Ahmad Abouammo was responsible for helping celebrities, journalists and other prominent 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 by collecting personal information from political dissidents and passing it on to Saudi Arabia in exchange for a luxury watch and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Mr Abouammo, who is charged with acting as an agent of a foreign power in the United States, committing wire transfers and money laundering, will appear in federal court this week in San Francisco.
“We look forward to justifying Mr. Abouammo and having his day in court,” said Angela Chuang, a lawyer representing him. The government expects Mr Abouammo’s legal team to argue that he has legally worked as an adviser to Saudi Arabia, according to a court file. Ms. Chuang declined to comment on the legal strategy.
The case, which illustrates the intensity of the Saudi government in seeking information about its critics, unfolds at a delicate point in diplomacy between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Last week, President Biden made his first visit as president to the kingdom, which he had once vowed to make an “outcast”, in hopes of closer Saudi-Israeli relations and relief from 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 covering up the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist killed by Saudi agents in 2018.
It’s also a fraught moment for Twitter as the company faces heightened control over its data security practices and wages a high-stakes legal battle against Elon Musk, who is trying to pull out of a deal to acquire the social media company.
While Twitter has said it has restricted employee access to user data after Mr Abouammo left the company in 2015, it continued to struggle with security concerns. 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 it misled users about how it handled their personal information. Twitter had told users it collected their email addresses and phone numbers to protect their accounts, but also used the information to help marketers target ads.
Mr Abouammo was charged in 2019 along with another former Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah. The Justice Department said the men had used their Twitter access to dig up information about thousands of users and shared the information with Ahmed Almutairi, who the ministry said had served as an intermediary with Saudi officials. Mr Almutairi previously ran a social media marketing firm that did work for the Saudi royal family.
The men collected “private user data, such as device IDs, phone numbers, IP addresses, all of which could have been used by the Saudi government to identify and locate the individuals behind the accounts, including political dissidents,” the Justice Department said in a statement. a statement. a judicial file.
When Twitter management confronted Mr Alzabarah, he fled to Saudi Arabia, the Justice Department said. He and Mr. Almutairi are still wanted by US law enforcement. Abouammo, who briefly worked at Amazon after leaving Twitter, was arrested in Seattle in 2019. He is out on bail but traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area for the trial.
In recent years, the Department of Justice has cracked down on lobbyists and others who promote but fail to publicize the interests of foreign governments. For years, prosecutors had largely ignored such 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 Mr Alzabarah is accused of watching on behalf of Saudi officials in 2015 belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi dissident and close confidant of Mr Khashoggi, people familiar with the matter said. Abdulaziz has sued Twitter for the infringement; the case is in mediation, according to his lawyers and court records.
“The problem is bigger than Abouammo,” said Abdulaziz lawyer Behnam Gharagozli. “The problem here is systemic. The problem is the way the data was handled at the time.”
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 has been investing in its security practices for a long time and those security practices are constantly evolving to address new security challenges and to deter and prevent both external and potential internal attackers. Twitter takes these threats very seriously.”
Abdulaziz, who lives in exile in Canada, hosts a YouTube channel and maintains a popular Twitter account, where he shares satire and criticism of the Saudi government. “What happened as a result of the data sharing was that he went from one of the many prominent Saudi dissidents to one of a select few,” Mr Gharagozli said.
Mr Gharagozli said relatives and friends of Mr Abdulaziz who remained in Saudi Arabia were imprisoned in what he called an attempted “torture by proxy” of Mr Abdulaziz. A spokeswoman for the Saudi government declined to comment.
“What’s important to Omar is that the platform will be secure in the future, or at least more secure,” said Mark Kleiman, another lawyer for Abdulaziz. “He worded it in a way that struck me early on. He said, ‘Twitter is our Parliament. It’s devastating to have it stormed and occupy it permanently, which is essentially what happened to the way MBS’ tech offensive has worked.'”