US files superseding indictment against former Twitter employees accused of spying for Saudi Arabia

(Reuters)

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U.S. prosecutors have filed a superseding indictment in federal court against two former Twitter employees for allegedly spying on dissidents on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

The Department of Justice had alleged last year that a Saudi national with ties to the royal family had recruited two former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, to abuse their access to Twitter to collect sensitive information about Saudi dissidents, including location data, email addresses, and phone numbers.

The former Twitter employees allegedly targeted a close associate of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in 2018 at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to the CIA.

A grand jury has now charged Abouammo, Alzabarah, and Ahmed Almutairi, their alleged intermediary with the Saudi Kingdom, with acting as agents of a foreign government, wire fraud, and money laundering, among other charges. Abouammo is also accused of falsifying records in an effort to obstruct the investigation.

Abouammo previously worked as Twitter’s head of social media partnerships for the Middle East and North Africa. He allegedly met with a Saudi official in 2014 and soon after accessed Twitter users’ information, according to court documents. He pleaded not guilty last year and is the only defendant in U.S. custody.

Before Abouammo left Twitter, he allegedly passed on his contacts to Alzabarah, a Twitter site reliability engineer, who is accused of using that information to target roughly access data about roughly 6,000 users. Abouammo and Alzabarah both allegedly received gifts, including cash payments, as a result of their work.

The superseding indictment was filed Tuesday in the Northern District of California.

The U.S. is not seeking to dismiss charges against the three men, despite recent media reporting suggesting otherwise. The superseding indictment filed Tuesday repeats the same allegations that prosecutors had initially made in April.

The update to the indictment comes more than a week after Twitter suffered from an apparent insider breach that allowed hackers to take over prominent accounts belonging to the likes of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama, and Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos. Hackers in that case appeared to be running a cryptocurrency scam with the targeted accounts, though they also gained access to the direct messages of nearly 40 Twitter users and downloaded an archive of data from eight accounts, Twitter said.

The pair of breaches raises questions about Twitter’s ability to control the access its employees have to sensitive information of its own users. When the U.S. government first brought the case against Abouammo, Twitter told CyberScoop “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,” adding the company had “tools” in place to protect users’ privacy.

The FBI is investigating the July hijacking incident.

Twitter did not return a request for comment. The Saudi Arabian Embassy in the U.S. and Abouammo’s attorney did not return requests for comment.

The superseding indictment in the Abouammo case is available in full below.

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Department of Justice (DOJ), insider threats, Saudi Arabia, Twitter
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