SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — Former Twitter employees were charged by federal prosecutors Wednesday with trolling through social media accounts, searching for posts from critics of the Saudi Arabian government.
According to complaint, Ali Alzabarah, Ahmed Almutairi and Ahmad Abouammo have been charged with acting “in the United States as an agent for a foreign government.”
The complaint unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts.
“The FBI will not stand by and allow foreign governments to illegally exploit private user information from U.S. companies,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett in a press release. “These individuals are charged with targeting and obtaining private data from dissidents and known critics, under the direction and control of the government of Saudi Arabia. Insider threats pose a critical threat to American businesses and our national security.”
According to federal prosecutors, Abouammo and Alzabarah used their employee credentials to gain access without authorization to certain nonpublic information about the individuals behind certain Twitter accounts.
Specifically, representatives of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Royal Family sought the private information of Twitter users, including their email addresses, IP addresses, and dates of birth, of persons some of whom published posts deemed by the Saudi Royal Family to be critical of the regime.
According to the Washington Post, one of the accounts accessed belonged to a prominent dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, who later became close to Jamal Khashoggi, a Post columnist who was killed by Saudi government agents last year.
“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,” said U.S. Attorney David Anderson in a news release.
The complaint also alleged that the employees were rewarded with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funneled into secret bank accounts.
Abouammo, who left his job as the media partnership manager responsible for Twitter’s Middle East region in 2015, was also charged with falsifying documents and making false statements when questioned by FBI agents.
He was expected to make his initial court appearance in Seattle federal court Wednesday afternoon.
That same year, investigators alleged that a Saudi working as a social media adviser for the Saudi royal family, recruited Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah by flying him to Washington, D.C., for a private meeting with an unnamed member of the family.
“Within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse,” the complaint said.
The effort included the user data of over 6,000 Twitter users, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter, investigators said.
After being confronted by his supervisors at Twitter, Alzabarah allegedly admitted to accessing user data and said he did it out of curiosity.
Alzabarah was placed on administrative leave, his work-owned laptop was seized and he was escorted out of the office. The next day, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter and has not returned to the United States, investigators said. A warrant for his arrest was issued as part of the complaint.
If convicted, all three defendants face maximum statutory sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for acting as an agent of a foreign government without notification to the Attorney General.
© Copyright 20198 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.