Questions are being asked after two employees of Twitter have been arrested and charged. Photo: AFP/Glenn Chapman

A United States district court has charged two Saudi nationals with abusing their positions at Twitter to spy on thousands of users and report back to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The charges, announced Wednesday in San Francisco, cast a fresh glare on the relations between technology companies and world governments as the former seek to operate with minimal regulation and the latter seek to cull information on private individuals.

Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Al-Zabarah have been charged with “acting as an agent of a foreign government” between 2014 and 2015 when they were employed at the San Francisco-based social media giant.

A third Saudi national, Ahmad al-Mutairi, faces similar charges for acting as an intermediary between one of the men and a Saudi official.

The court filing offered four examples of notes passed between the men and their handlers on Twitter users:

“[a]s far as I can tell his name is [redacted], he’s about 22, and the IP is [redacted]. Last logged in on 06/06/2015 at 16:57 UTC. Using an iPhone.”

“Is not in Saudi Arabia; he goes back and forth between Turkey and Iraq.”

The Saudi Arabian government appears to have sporadically requested an “emergency disclosure request” on targeted users in parallel.

Those requests, in two of four listed cases, were granted by Twitter on the same day, yielding account IDs, date of creation, the IP address and verified phone numbers of Saudi nationals.

On its website, Twitter says that: “Non-public information about Twitter users will not be released to law enforcement except in response to appropriate legal process such as a subpoena, court order, or other valid legal process.”

It adds a caveat that such information could also be shared “in response to a valid emergency request” – what the Saudi authorities appear to have used as a default.

Record lobbying

Technology giants spent record sums on lobbying in the United States last year, with Twitter doubling its expenditure to more than US$1 million.

The past year has seen Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and other heads of tech giants compelled to testify before Congress over a myriad of concerns – including user privacy.

“Starting on May 21, 2015, through November 18, 2015, ALZABARAH accessed without authorization through Twitter’s 16 computer systems the Twitter user data of over 6,000 Twitter users,” Wednesday’s court filing read.

In only 33 of those cases, Saudi law enforcement had submitted an emergency disclosure request to Twitter.

The revelation comes just a year and a half after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a charm offensive across the US, with a pronounced focus on meetings with big tech leaders.

While the powerful prince has become a persona non grata following the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi money – namely billions pledged to Softbank’s Vision Fund – continues to flow into Silicon Valley.

The court filings suggest the kingdom’s focus on achieving an insider status in Silicon Valley began in parallel with Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, accelerating with his appointment as minister of defense in January 2015.

An unnamed Saudi foreign official in June 2014 was first observed “cultivating employees of Twitter” in an effort to cull the site for users’ private information, according to the affidavit.

But it was Twitter which put that official – who said he wanted to know how to obtain a coveted verification mark for a Saudi news personality – in touch with its Saudi employee, Abouammo.

Abouammo informed the official he was in charge of media partnerships for the MENA region, and from there he began aiding the official in everything from arranging tours of Twitter for Saudi entrepreneurs to passing along user data of critics.

The revelations come one month after a massive hack by Israeli spyware company NSO Group against WhatsApp users was revealed.

Again, there was a Saudi link. In December 2018, it was revealed that Pegasus – NSO’s hallmark spyware device – enabled the Saudis to close in on critic Khashoggi, ahead of his murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

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