A former Twitter employee was given a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence yesterday after being found guilty of spying for Saudi Arabia by using the social media platform to pass on personal information of dissidents to a close aide of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS).
Dual US-Lebanese citizen Ahmad Abouammo, who oversaw Twitter’s media partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa, was found guilty by a jury in August following a trial in a federal court. He was found to have abused his position at Twitter to find personal details of anonymous Saudi critics of the monarchy, and then passing on the information to MBS’ aide Bader Al-Asaker.
According to the indictment from an FBI agent presented to the Northern District of California, a Saudi government agent began courting Abouammo in 2014 by buying him gifts and depositing money in his cousin’s bank account. Abouammo then began illegally accessing private data on the platform’s users who were critical of the Saudi government and passed on their email addresses and phone numbers to the government agent.
Abouammo’s activities on behalf of the Saudi government are even said to have continued after he left Twitter in May 2015, by contacting former co-workers and encouraging them to verify certain Saudi accounts or remove posts that the Saudi agent deemed to have violated the site’s terms of service.
According to AP, the case marks the first time that Saudi Arabia has been accused of spying in the US. The US Justice Department noted that another Twitter employee who accessed confidential user account data, and a person allegedly with close ties to MBS was also involved, however the department believes the two accomplices fled to Saudi Arabia to escape from US authorities. One of the men was reportedly given a job at MBS’ charity, the Misk Foundation.
Prosecutors had sought a prison term of just over seven years, arguing that they wanted a “sentence strong enough to deter others in the technology and social media industry from selling out the data of vulnerable users.”
As part of their sentencing plea, the defence counsel for Abouammo said that while at Twitter, his family had been “struggling to pay for and deal with serious upheavals in his sister’s life,” including specialised medical care for her newborn daughter.