Former Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison after being convicted of spying for Saudi Arabia, Reuters and NBC News report. Ahmad Abouammo was employed by Twitter between 2013 and 2015, during which time he used his position as a media partnerships manager for the Middle East and North Africa to access personal information of users critical of the Saudi government and pass it to Saudi officials.
Reuters notes that Abouammo received a $42,000 watch as a gift from a Saudi official, as well as two $100,000 wire transfers. In exchange he looked up information on two Twitter users, including phone numbers and birth dates. After leaving the company in 2015 Abouammo continued to attempt to influence Twitter to verify Saudi accounts or remove posts highlighted by the Saudi government, according to testimony from an FBI agent.
Abouammo received hundreds of thousands of dollars in wire transfers
Abouammo was convicted in August this year for charges including acting as an agent of a foreign government, as well as fraud, money laundering, and falsification of records. He was first charged in 2019 alongside another Twitter employee who was accused of accessing thousands of Twitter accounts for the Saudi government. The second employee, Ali Alzabarah, left the US before being charged.
Saudi Arabia hands out harsh penalties for posting anti-government content on social media. One Saudi citizen was sentenced to 34 years in prison earlier this year for tweeting in protest of the government, while another was sentenced to 16 years.
The case highlights the extremely sensitive information Twitter holds, given the numerous high profile politicians, celebrities, and businesspeople that use its service on a daily basis.
According to testimony from Twitter’s former security chief Peiter ‘Mudge’ Zatko, the Saudi regime may not be the only foreign government to have attempted to infiltrate Twitter. Earlier this year, he alleged that the Indian and Chinese governments had embedded agents within the company and said the company was unable to establish the extent to which it may have been compromised. “We simply lacked the ability to hunt for foreign intelligence agents and expel them on our own,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in September.
Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Company, which is 16.9 percent owned by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, and the private office of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, claim to jointly be the second largest investor in Twitter following Elon Musk’s takeover of the company. The US government has reportedly been looking into whether Musk’s foreign investment partners could access users’ private data on the platform.