The U.S. Justice Department has charged two former Twitter Inc (NYSE: TWTR) employees with spying on Saudi Arabian dissidents. Federal prosecutors said Wednesday the pair collaborated with a Saudi national to pass user information to Saudi officials.
“The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known critics of the government and thousands of other Twitter users,” David Anderson, U.S. attorney in San Francisco, said Wednesday. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”
Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo are alleged to have used employee credentials to gather email addresses, birth dates, phone numbers and other personal information from more than 6,000 accounts. Saudi national Ahmed Almutairi worked as an intermediary for the Saudi government and paid the employees to act between 2013 and 2015.
The federal court filing alleges that Abouammo, Alzabarah and Almutairi acted as illegal operatives of a foreign state.
Why It’s Important
Social media companies have been under fire for various privacy failures in the last few years. Previous concerns were much lower-stakes than this one. In the hands of Saudi officials, Twitter’s information could be lethal.
“This information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts,” the Justice Department said. The government is known to silence critics, including journalist Jamal Khashoggi just last year.
Twitter has policies in plan to curb conspiracies like these.
“Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” a Twitter spokeswoman said in 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 U.S. has made one arrest and believes two other defendants are in Saudi Arabia.
California said Wednesday it's investigating Facebook, Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) over its privacy policies.
At time of publication, Twitter traded down 1.6%.