The Latest: Twitter spying case shows insider risks

Tech

Allegations that two former Twitter employees spied on opponents of the Saudi government at its behest have raised nagging questions about how to detect and halt the so-called insider threats.

The Latest on allegations from U.S. prosecutors that Saudi Arabia recruited two Twitter employees to spy on accounts that included prominent government opponents (all times local):

2:55 p.m.

Rogue employees pilfering data and spying across networks have long plagued governments and corporations. But in this burgeoning age of social networks, the stakes are higher.

Allegations that two former Twitter employees spied on opponents of the Saudi government at its behest have raised nagging questions about how to detect and halt the so-called insider threats.

Experts note that it’s easier for foreign governments to bribe company employees than to try to hack a company. Detecting insider access isn’t easy, despite the availability of tools to do so.

Yet the wealth of data that these companies have turned them into lucrative targets. Companies that provide email, social media, search and other services have troves of personal data, including users’ location, hobbies, political views and private messages. .

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1:40 p.m.

The LinkedIn page of the suspect in custody on allegations he worked with Saudi Arabia to spy on Twitter accounts of prominent opponents of the country’s government describes him as a “communication and marketing leader.”

U.S. citizen Ahmad Abouammo lists his current jobs as a digital consultant with Cyrcl LLC and as co-founder of a “new startup that will redefine social.” Washington state records show that Cyrcl was dissolved in 2017.

Abouammo previously worked for Twitter and U.S. prosecutors have said he was recruited by Saudi Arabia to spy on thousands of accounts. He is charged with being an agent of Saudi Arabia who did not register with the U.S. government.

Amazon and Middle East Broadcasting Networks confirmed that Abouammo had also worked for those companies but said the jobs he listed on LinkedIn did not match their employment records.

Abouammo’s website says he is finishing a master’s degree in management from Harvard University. The university did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. 

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12:50 p.m.

A senior Saudi official in Washington has declined detailed comment on allegations by U.S. prosecutors that the country recruited two Twitter employees to spy on thousands of accounts that included prominent opponents of the government of Saudi Arabia.

But the official said Thursday that “we expect all our citizens to abide by the laws of the countries in which they live.”

The official spoke with reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss a issues sensitive to the government.

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

U.S. citizen Ahmad Abouammo and Saudi citizen Ali Alzabarah are charged with being agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government. Abouammo is detained and investigators believe Alzabarah is in Saudi Arabia.

—By Ben Fox

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11:15 a.m.

A former co-worker and friend of a man accused of working for the Saudi government to gather confidential personal information from thousands of Twitter accounts says she never recalled him as being political.

Shirine Hossaini said Thursday that she and former Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo worked together for several years at the headquarters of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks in Springfield, Virginia.

She described Abouammo as “really sweet, happy, very thoughtful, really trustworthy.”

He and Saudi citizen Ali Alzabarah are charged with being agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government. Abouammo is detained and investigators believe Alzabarah is in Saudi Arabia.

Hossaini says she worked in promotions and he headed social media management while the two worked at the non-profit media company financed by U.S. government funding that also goes to Voice of America.

She says she and other friends are considering writing letters of support to the court for Abouammo and offering to testify as character witnesses.

1 a.m.

U.S. prosecutors say Saudi Arabia recruited two Twitter employees to spy on thousands of accounts that included prominent opponents.

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

The complaint says that data included email addresses linked to the accounts and internet protocol addresses that can give up a user’s location. It appeared to link Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful 34-year-son of King Salman, to the effort.

The accounts that were looked at included those of a popular Saudi government critic with more than 1 million followers and a news personality, but they were not named in the complaint.

The Saudi government’s embassy in Washington did not comment on the case and its state-run media and affiliated state-linked media did not report on the charges on Wednesday or Thursday.

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