BuzzFeed News recently published an article outlining how Saudi Arabia infiltrated social media firm Twitter in order to identify Saudi dissidents. According to the report, Twitter was completely unprepared for foreign governments to spy on its users. According to one former employee, “Nobody told us that we would be approached, that we would be — I don’t know if ‘seduced’ is the right word — that we would be intimidated into giving any kind of Twitter information.”
BuzzFeed News reports in an article titled “How Saudi Arabia Infiltrated Twitter,” that a recent complaint from the FBI alleges that the Saudi Arabian government positioned spies within social media giant Twitter in order to track down and identify Saudi dissidents. BuzzFeed News writes:
Ali Alzabarah was panicked. His heart raced as he drove home from Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters in the early evening on Dec. 2, 2015. He needed to leave the country — quickly.
Earlier that day, Twitter’s management accused the unassuming 32-year-old of accessing thousands of user profiles without authorization to pass their identifying information — including phone numbers and IP addresses — reportedly to Bader al-Asaker, the head of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s charity and private office. When the conversation concluded, management seized Alzabarah’s laptop, put him on administrative leave, and escorted him out of the building.
BuzzFeed News writes that shortly after this series of events, it was revealed that from May 2015 until he fled the country, Alzabarah was a spy for the Saudi Arabian government inside Twitter. According to the FBI complaint, Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, an individual who worked on Twitter’s global media team, accessed and sent information that could help Saudi intelligence to identify and track down anonymous dissidents.
Azabarah fled the country but he and Abouammo, who is currently in the United States, are currently indicted in United States federal court on charges of acting as undeclared agents of the Saudi government. Abdullah Alaoudh, a legal scholar at Georgetown University whose father is imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, told BuzzFeed News: “The message MBS gets from the world, from powerful countries, from the international community, is that he will get away with whatever he did or will do. Because he has money, he can control the process of oil. Therefore, everybody will go back to business as usual.”
According to BuzzFeed News, Abouammo regularly used his position at the company to access users’ personal information. Employees at the company were reportedly unprepared for a situation in which their system would be used to spy for political purposes with BuzzFeed writing:
When it built its global media team, Twitter didn’t prepare for possible scenarios in which employees with access to sensitive data and close relationships with foreign governments might use it to spy, according to former employees.
“The people running onboarding didn’t do much training in terms of the specificities of the challenges that we would be facing,” an ex-Twitter employee who worked alongside Abouammo told BuzzFeed News. “Nobody told us that we would be approached, that we would be — I don’t know if ‘seduced’ is the right word — that we would be intimidated into giving any kind of Twitter information.” Twitter has not responded to questions regarding this issue.
Read the full report in BuzzFeed News here.