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Twitter Employee Accused of Spying for Saudi Arabia Heads to Trial

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SAN FRANCISCO — While working at Twitter from 2013 to 2015, Ahmad Abouammo was chargeable for helping celebrities, journalists and other notable figures within the Middle East promote their Twitter accounts. He handled requests for Twitter’s coveted blue verification badges and arranged tours of the San Francisco headquarters.

However the Justice Department says he misused his access to Twitter user data, gathering the private information of political dissidents and passing it to Saudi Arabia in exchange for a luxury watch and tons of of hundreds of dollars.

Mr. Abouammo, who’s charged with acting as an agent of a foreign power inside america, committing wire fraud and laundering money, is ready to face trial this week in federal court in San Francisco.

“We stay up for vindicating Mr. Abouammo and for him to have his day in court,” said Angela Chuang, a lawyer representing him. The federal government expects Mr. Abouammo’s legal team to argue that he worked lawfully as a consultant to Saudi Arabia, in keeping with a court filing. Ms. Chuang declined to comment on legal strategy.

The case, which illustrates the Saudi government’s intensity in pursuing details about its critics, is unfolding at a fragile point in diplomacy between america and Saudi Arabia.

Last week, President Biden made his first visit as president to the dominion, which he had once vowed to make a “pariah,” in hopes of securing closer Saudi-Israeli relations and relief from high gas prices. Mr. Biden met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known by his initials, M.B.S., and other Saudi officials. But human rights activists sharply criticized the visit, arguing that the president was glossing over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was assassinated in 2018 by Saudi operatives.

It is usually a fraught moment for Twitter, as the corporate faces heightened scrutiny over its data security practices and wages a high-stakes legal battle against Elon Musk, who’s attempting to back out of a deal to amass the social media company.

While Twitter has said it limited worker access to user data after Mr. Abouammo departed the corporate in 2015, it has continued to struggle with security problems. In 2020, hackers hijacked the accounts of famous users, including Mr. Musk, to advertise a cryptocurrency scam.

In May, Twitter agreed to pay a $150 million high-quality to settle charges that it misled users about the way it treated their personal data. Twitter had told users that it was collecting their email addresses and phone numbers to guard their accounts, but in addition used the data to assist marketers goal ads.

Mr. Abouammo was charged in 2019 together with one other former Twitter worker, Ali Alzabarah. The Justice Department said the lads had used their Twitter access to dig up details about hundreds of users and shared the data with Ahmed Almutairi, who the department said had served as their go-between with Saudi officials. Mr. Almutairi previously ran a social media marketing company that did work for the Saudi royal family.

The boys gathered “private user data, comparable to device identifiers, phone numbers, IP addresses, all of which might have been utilized by the Saudi government to discover and locate the individuals behind the accounts, including political dissidents,” the Justice Department said in a court filing.

When Twitter management confronted Mr. Alzabarah, he fled to Saudi Arabia, the Justice Department said. He and Mr. Almutairi remain wanted by U.S. law enforcement. Mr. Abouammo, who worked briefly at Amazon after leaving Twitter, was arrested in Seattle in 2019. He’s free on bail but traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area for the trial.

Lately, the Justice Department has cracked down on lobbyists and others who work to further the interests of foreign governments but don’t disclose it. For years, prosecutors had largely ignored such cases; from 1966 until 2015, the Justice Department pursued only seven cases under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires lobbyists to reveal their work on behalf of foreign governments.

One in every of the 6,000 Twitter accounts that Mr. Alzabarah is accused of on behalf of Saudi officials in 2015 belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a distinguished Saudi dissident and confidant of Mr. Khashoggi, people acquainted with the case said. Mr. Abdulaziz has sued Twitter over the breach; the case is in mediation, in keeping with his lawyers and court records.

“The issue is larger than Abouammo,” said Behnam Gharagozli, a lawyer for Mr. Abdulaziz. “The issue is systemic here. The issue is the best way the info was handled back then.”

A Twitter spokeswoman said that “Twitter’s information security practices undergo rigorous audits by an external auditor — as has been the case since 2012.” She added: “Twitter’s investment in its security practices is longstanding, and people security practices evolve continuously to fulfill recent security challenges and to discourage and stop each external and potential internal bad actors. Twitter takes these threats extremely seriously.”

Mr. Abdulaziz, who lives in exile in Canada, hosts a YouTube channel and maintains a well-liked Twitter account, where he shares satire and criticism of the Saudi government. “What happened consequently of this data sharing was that he went from one among many distinguished Saudi dissidents to one among a select few,” Mr. Gharagozli said.

Mr. Gharagozli said relatives and friends of Mr. Abdulaziz who remained in Saudi Arabia were imprisoned, in what he called an attempt at “torture by proxy” of Mr. Abdulaziz. A spokeswoman for the Saudi government declined to comment.

“What matters to Omar is the platform being secure, or on the very least safer, going forward,” said Mark Kleiman, one other lawyer for Mr. Abdulaziz. “He put it in a way that actually struck me early on. He said: ‘Twitter is our Parliament. To have it stormed and permanently occupied, which is basically what has happened with the best way M.B.S.’s tech offensive has worked, is devastating.’”

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