Federal prosecutors are alleging that two Twitter employees were recruited by the Saudi Arabian government to provide personal account information on its critics.
The complaint detailing the allegation was unsealed today in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Among the accounts compromised were those of a news personality and a popular critic of the government who had more than a million followers.
The two now-former employees charged were Ahmad Abouammo, a media partnership manager for Twitter’s Middle East region who left the company in 2015, and engineer Ali Alzabarah. Neither had jobs that required access to user private information.
The pair received tens of thousands of dollars and a designer watch for revealing the private information, the prosecutors said. They were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government.
The Saudi Arabian government did not respond to a request for comment made by the Associated Press to its embassy in Washington.
Twitter has cooperated with the government and issued a statement.
“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.”
Abouammo also was charged with falsifying documents and making false statements to obstruct FBI investigators. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. He remains in custody pending a Friday detention hearing.
There was no comment from his lawyer, Christopher Black.
A social media adviser for the Saudi royal family recruited Alzabarah. The adviser, Ahmed Almutairi, then met with someone named as Royal Family Member 1.
“Within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse,” the complaint said. More than 6,000 Twitter users, were compromised, including 33 usernames that the Saudi law enforcement was seeking information on.
Alzabarah was confronted by his supervisors about the intrusion but claimed he did it merely out of curiosity. He was placed on administrative leave, had his laptop seized and was escorted out of the office. He then flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter and has not returned.
Arrests warrants for Alzabarah and Almutairi were issued as part of the complaint.