Former Twitter employees charged in Saudi spy scandal

SAN FRANCISCO -- Two former Twitter employees have been charged with spying for Saudi Arabia. This is the first time the U.S. Attorney has accused the Saudi government of spying in America.

"Twitter has just been a very successful platform for people critical of the Saudi royal family," said Greg Bensinger, a tech reporter for the Washington Post.

According to federal prosecutors, two Twitter employees, acting at the behest of Saudi officials, looked up personal information of Twitter users -- email addresses, payment methods and IP addresses, which can give up a user's location.

"One of the Twitter employees was paid directly by the Saudi royal family for his services -- some $300,000," said Bensinger, who added, "the other Twitter employee looked up 6,000 accounts or more, all of interest to the Saudi royal family."

Bensinger broke the story, the day after the U.S. attorney filed a criminal complaint against the Twitter employees.

Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen and former Bay Area resident, was arrested in Seattle on Tuesday.

In addition to money, Abouammo allegedly accepted a designer watch from a Saudi official.

Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, is presumably back in the Middle East. One of the Twitter accounts he allegedly hacked, belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi dissident who was close to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was assassinated in Istanbul last year.

A third individual, Saudi citizen Ahmed Almutairi, was also charged. He allegedly acted as an intermediary between Saudi officials and Abouammo and Alzabarah.

"Most of the hacking happens inside of the companies rather than comes from outside," said Levent Ertaul, a cybersecurity expert and the chair of Cal State East Bay's computer science program.

Ertaul thinks the U.S. government needs to regulate big tech.

"We have to question the ability of the tech companies in United States, how they are providing the privacy and security for their users data."

Twitter released the following statement:

We would like to thank the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for their support with this investigation. We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service. Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees. 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. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We're committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.
Copyright © 2019 KABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.