A former Twitter employee who is accused in the US of using the platform to spy on behalf of Saudi Arabia is now appearing in a court in San Francisco that should decide whether to free him on bail.
Ahmed Abouammo, a US citizen, has been charged with acting as an illegal foreign agent which, if found guilty, is an accusation that could land him in prison for a long time.
Prosecutors allege that Abouammo was on Saudi payroll while working as Twitter’s media partnership manager for the Middle East. His task on behalf of the kingdom was to allegedly sniff out Saudi dissidents on Twitter and then spy on these users by providing their private data like emails and IP addresses that could expose their physical location.
Another former Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah, who is a Saudi citizen and is believed to now be in Saudi Arabia, has also been charged in the case – and both are believed to have received tens of thousands of dollars from the Saudi government.
Besides being the first time an alleged Saudi spy is prosecuted in the United States, the case also reveals the vulnerability to the human factor of the personal data collected and held by Twitter.
According to the federal complaint, Abouammo’s spying efforts targeted, among others, a well-known critic of the Saudi government who has more than a million followers on Twitter, and a news personality – though neither has been named.
As prosecutors today appealed the San Francisco court’s decision to free Abouammo on bail, they cited his statements and status as the reason not to release him. One of these messages, Bloomberg writes was allegedly sent to “a Saudi handler” and, referring to dissidents, read, “We will delete evil my brother.”
In addition, Abouammo is a flight risk thanks to his dual Lebanese citizenship, connections with Saudi authorities and assets abroad, the prosecution said as it argued against the decision to fee him on bail.
US District Judge William Alsup, on the other hand, apologized to Abouammo “for keeping him locked up while prosecutors appeal an order to free him on bail.”
Twitter issued a statement two weeks ago to say it was cooperating with US authorities – and also asserted that it has tools to protect users “with sensitive accounts.”