Monday, June 24, 2024

Former Twitter Employee Convicted as Saudi Spy

Feds alleged U.S. citizen Ahmad Abouammo used his public relations position at Twitter to funnel information to MBS about Saudi dissidents.

What does it cost to sell out and hand over the private information of the critics for a despotic regime? Apparently $300,000 and a nice watch. A former Twitter employee was convicted on six of his original 11 counts of operating as an agent for Saudi Arabia. The verdict came down late Tuesday, and all that’s left is sentencing, which could be up to 20 years in federal prison.

Federal prosecutors said that former Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. resident born in Egypt who held dual U.S.-Lebanese citizenship, worked as a media partnership manager, helping promote the company while working with journalists and celebrities in the Middle East and north Africa. Feds further claimed that while in that job he had been working as a spy on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government from late 2014 to March 2015.

He was convicted of being an agent for a foreign power, as well as money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud for trying to wire money to Saudi accounts, but the original charges go much deeper than that. According to the original complaint, prosecutors also said that Abouammo had been working on behalf of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to worm his way through Twitter’s internal systems to share personal information on Saudi critics and dissidents.

Bloomberg reported that prosecutors showed that Abouammo received $300,000 in wire transfers in bribes from MBS’ aide in exchange for Twitter account info. Feds also alleged Abouammo received an expensive Hublot watch for his troubles. The trial lasted two and a half weeks before he was finally convicted. Bloomberg also reported that the court restricted prosecutors from telling the jury that the U.S. believed the crown prince used this Twitter info to detain and torture supposed critics.

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Abouammo was represented by San Francisco public defender Angela Chuang, according to reports. She did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. Chuang reportedly told the jury Twitter botched their own investigation and was careless in handling Twitter users’ data. A fellow person charged in the original complaint, Ali Alzabarah, fled to Saudi Arabia, and Chuang apparently criticized the company and the U.S. for letting him go even as he was under surveillance.

Twitter declined to comment on the verdict, but the company did say they have been cooperating with law enforcement throughout the trial, and they previously conducted their own investigation and notified users if they were impacted.

Despite it being years since Twitter fired the alleged spy, the social media company has not been able to escape accusations of aiding Saudi Arabia. In a separate civil case, Ali al-Ahmed, a self-described critic of Saudi Arabia who had been granted asylum in the U.S., sued the social media company in late 2021. He said his account was one of those Abouammo hacked, and alleged the company had effectively collaborated and otherwise turned a blind eye to the Saudi government’s attacks on dissenters. Attorneys later agreed to dismiss the case in July.

Though the charges against Abouammo weren’t filed until 2019, investigations in the wake of the brutal murder of Saudi critic and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi brought the young Saudi royal’s online spying campaigns to the public eye. A 2018 New York Times investigation following Khashoggi’s murder showed how the crown prince helped sick legions of Twitter accounts to harass the journalist. That report also showed how effective the royal has been at using Twitter to prop up his regime. Bin Salman has also been well known for being buddy-buddy with many of the world’s biggest tech companies and their CEOs.

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Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns $300 million worth of stock in Twitter. While the fellow prince was originally skeptical of Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s planned and botched takeover of the company, bin Talal later pledged $1.9 billion to help with the purchase.

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