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Saudis recruited Twitter employees to access critics' user data, U.S. prosecutors say

The Saudi government recruited two Twitter employees to get personal account information belonging to their critics, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Employees allegedly accessed thousands of accounts, rewarded with watches, cash

A complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco detailed a co-ordinated effort by Saudi government officials to recruit employees at Twitter to look up the private data of thousands of user accounts. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

The Saudi government recruited two Twitter employees to get personal account information belonging to their critics, prosecutors said Wednesday.

A complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco detailed a co-ordinated effort by Saudi government officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts.

The accounts included those of a popular journalist with more than one million followers and other prominent government critics.

It also alleged that the employees — whose jobs did not require access to Twitter users' private information — were rewarded with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funnelled into secret bank accounts. They were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government.

The Saudi government had no immediate comment through its embassy in Washington, D.C.

Twitter acknowledged that it co-operated in the investigation and said in a statement that it restricts access to sensitive account information "to a limited group of trained and vetted employees."

"We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable," the statement said. "We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work."

Ahmad Abouammo, who left his job as the media partnership manager responsible for Twitter's Middle East region in 2015, was also charged with falsifying documents and making false statements when questioned by FBI agents at his Seattle, Wash., home — offences that carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison if convicted.

At his appearance in Seattle federal court Wednesday, Abouammo was ordered to remain in custody pending a detention hearing set for Friday.

His lawyer, Christopher Black, declined to comment, as did Abouammo's wife, who did not give her name.

Investigators alleged that a Saudi working as a social media adviser for the Saudi royal family recruited Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah by flying him to Washington, D.C., for a private meeting with an unnamed member of the family.

"Within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse," the complaint said.

The effort included the user data of over 6,000 Twitter users, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter, investigators said.

After being confronted by his supervisors at Twitter, Alzabarah acknowledged accessing user data and said he did it out of curiosity, authorities said.

Alzabarah was placed on administrative leave, his work-owned laptop was seized, and he was escorted out of the office. The next day, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter and has not returned to the United States, investigators said.

A warrant for his arrest was issued as part of the complaint.

The social media adviser charged in the complaint went by the name Ahmed Almutairi or Ahmed Aljbreen.

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