Two former employees of Twitter have been charged with spying on more than 6,000 users’ accounts at the request of the Saudi Arabian government, according to a federal criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday.
The Justice Department complaint, first reported by The Washington Post, alleges that Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi Arabian citizen, and Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen, both used their positions at Twitter to spy on users who were critical of Saudi Arabia. Abouammo was arrested Tuesday, according to the Post.
A Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to Business Insider that the company was grateful for the Justice Department’s investigation, but declined to answer questions about what positions the two former employees held at the company, or whether Twitter was aware of any spying before prosecutors intervened.
“We would like to thank the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for their support with this investigation. We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service. Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson went on to say that Twitter “understand[s] the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.”
According to the Post, one of the accounts that the employees snooped on belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent activist who was critical of Saudi Arabia and became close with Jama Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist killed by Saudi government officials 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,” U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson told the Post. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”
Abouammo worked as a media partnerships manager for Twitter, according to the criminal complaint. A LinkedIn profile that appears to belong to Abouammo says he was at the company from 2013-2015, and that he “spearheaded Twitter partnerships with media organizations (TV, sports, government, entertainment, music, and news)” in the Middle East and Africa.