A former employee of Twitter was found guilty Tuesday of spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia in federal court in San Francisco after a two-week trial. Ahmad Abouammo worked at Twitter from 2013 to 2015, and during that time he passed information about accounts critical of the Saudi government in exchange for over $300,000 and an expensive gold watch, according to the federal government’s case. Adbouammo was found guilty of six of the spying-related charges, and not guilty on five other charges related to wire fraud.
“The Northern District of California is home to many of the most innovative technology companies in the world,” said U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “One consequence of this good fortune is that companies in this district often collect and store vast amounts of data from customers and vendors. In this case, the government demonstrated, and the jury found, that Abouammo violated a sacred trust to keep private personal information from Twitter’s customers and sold private customer information to a foreign government.”
Abouammo was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges along with two other former Twitter employees. He had worked on the global media team and, as part of his role, encouraged prominent figures in the Middle East to post on Twitter. According to the government’s case, a public relations firm asked him to get a Saudi media figure verified, and then introduced him to Bader Al-Asaker, who worked for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Al-Asaker had Abouammo access the email addresses and phone numbers (which could reveal the identity of anonymous accounts) of Twitter users who were critical of the Saudi royal family.
Omar Abdulaziz, an influential Saudi dissident living in Canada and former friend of Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Washington Post columnist, told BuzzFeed News in 2019 that he believed his popular account was targeted by Twitter employee spies after receiving an email from the platform alerting him that someone had viewed his account information. He told BuzzFeed News that he believed that other dissidents still living in Saudi Arabia may have been arrested and tortured after having their identities revealed through Twitter in this way.
Abouammo enlisted a coworker, Ali Alzabarah, a site reliability engineer, into the espionage scheme. As an SRE, Alzabarah had even more access to user information than the average Twitter employee. Alzabarah, a Saudi national, fled the country in 2015 after his bosses discovered he had been improperly accessing the data of over 6,000 users. As of the 2019 federal complaint, Alzabarah and a third accomplice were believed to be in Saudi Arabia, and a federal warrant for their arrest has been issued. Twitter declined to comment on the verdict.