A former Twitter employee has been sentenced to 42 months in jail for passing confidential and sensitive information from the platform to the Saudi royal family. The information, which could be used to locate Twitter users “of interest” to Saudi Arabia, was exchanged for bribes in the form of cash and luxury watches, a court heard.
Ahmad Abouammo, 45, formerly of Walnut Creek and currently residing in Seattle in the US, was convicted of “acting as a foreign agent without notice to the Attorney General, conspiracy, wire fraud, international money laundering and falsification of records,” at a trial in August. He was sentenced on Thursday.
Information on critics of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) falling into the hands of officials is particularly alarming in the context of the Kingdom’s previous treatment of its critics. The most high-profile example of this is the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated at the KSA consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The CIA believes he was murdered by agents of the Saudi government.
Why a Twitter employee passed information to Saudi Arabia
Abouammo will serve 42 months in jail, followed by three years of supervision following his release.
According to the evidence presented at the trial, Abouammo began receiving bribes from an official of the KSA as early as December 2014, in exchange for access to Twitter user accounts and information about dissidents and critics of Saudi Arabia. He was employed as a media partnerships manager for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by Twitter at the time.
After receiving a $42,000 watch during a meeting in London in December of 2014, Abouammo began accessing private information about several Twitter accounts, at least one of which belonged to influential users who were critical of the Saudi royal family and the KSA government.
Later, in 2016, Abouammo opened another account in his father’s name that received a total of $200,000, before he left Twitter to seek employment elsewhere.
Throughout the process the accused consistently lied to the FBI, falsifying invoices and presenting misleading information, the Department of Justice said.
Twitter spying case: foreign governments target social media companies
This case has revealed the reach that foreign governments can have in the West, explained US Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds for the Northern District of California. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will bribe insiders to obtain the user information that is collected and stored by our Silicon Valley social media companies,” she said. “This sentence sends a message to insiders with access to user information to safeguard it, particularly from repressive regimes, or risk significant time in prison.”
Such deep involvement with foreign states must be declared so it can be appropriately monitored, added Alan E. Kohler Jr, assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division. “This case exposes attempts by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to illegally obtain personally identifiable information in order to target critics and dissidents,” Kohler said. “Anyone working to advance the agenda of a foreign government is required by law to register as a foreign agent of that country.”
As well as the jail time and supervision, a forfeiture order of $242,000, representing the watch and cash received by Abouammo as bribes, has been issued to the defendant.