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Former Twitter employee seeks to have spying charges dismissed

Twitter logo [Aytaç Ünal - Anadolu Agency]
Twitter logo [Aytaç Ünal - Anadolu Agency]

A former employee of the Twitter social media site, who is accused of spying for Saudi Arabia against its critics, is fighting for the charges against him to be dismissed under state law in California.

Ahmad Abouammo, a duel US-Lebanese citizen and father of three, was the manager of media partnerships for Twitter's Middle East and North Africa region between November 2013 and May 2015. He is accused of having used his position and the access he had to provide Saudi Arabia with the private details of dissidents and critics of the Kingdom using the site.

In return for this information, which included the phone numbers and email addresses of two critics of the Saudi government, Abouammo is said to have been paid at least $100,000 in cash and a watch worth $20,000. He was arrested in November 2019, before being released on bail after a legal battle.

He was granted bail primarily because his alleged actions paled in comparison with those of his co-defendant Ali Alzabarah. The Saudi citizen and another former Twitter employee apparently accessed the private data of over 6,000 Twitter users, providing details which could be used to identify and locate dissidents. After being confronted by Twitter managers in December 2015, Alzabarah fled to Saudi Arabia.

His defence argued in an online court hearing yesterday that, in this case, California state law must take precedence over US federal law, as the term "property" is not properly defined in the federal legislation regarding wire fraud. As such, according to Abouammo's public defender Ellen Leonida, stolen personal information cannot be legally considered to be property unless qualified as a trade secret.

READ: Twitter suspends 94,000 accounts linked to Saudi spying

That point was countered by federal prosecutors who cited the US Supreme Court's ruling in 1987 that intangible confidential business information is considered to be property under the federal wire fraud statute. According to Assistant US Attorney Colin Sampson, "There's a large line of cases including Carpenter [v. United States], which finds that companies are defrauded of their information despite its intangible nature. They are not trade secret cases."

Even if the private data of Twitter users is considered to be trade secret information, Sampson added, the case could easily be confirmed by the US government as the data is protected and Twitter receives economic value from it.

Abouammo's defence attorney also claimed that there is no specific instance in which he shared the private data with the Saudi government that can be proven. This, it was argued, means that the charges of wire fraud should be dropped.

Prosecutor Sampson again countered, alleging that the US government possesses evidence such as phone calls between Abouammo and a Saudi official shortly after two Saudi dissidents' Twitter accounts were accessed. "The government believes our evidence is strong, and that's a reason to let the jury decide," he argued.

Overall, Abouammo currently faces 23 criminal charges including acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, conspiring to commit wire fraud, aiding and abetting wire fraud, money laundering and falsifying records to obstruct an investigation. As a result of the first charge, he faces 10 years in prison, and a further 20 years in prison for each set of the other charges.

READ: Middle East nuclear proliferation may be on the way, but the immediate threat is cyberwarfare

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