Aug 10, 2022 - Technology

Former Twitter employee convicted of spying for Saudi Arabia

Photo: Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A former Twitter employee was convicted Tuesday of charges related to spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia by obtaining information on dissidents who used the platform.

Driving the news: A federal jury in San Francisco found Ahmad Abouammo, a 44-year-old dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen, guilty on six of 11 criminal counts, including acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying U.S. officials.

Why it matters: It's the first time Saudi Arabia has been connected with a spying case in the U.S., AP notes.

  • The verdict comes as the Biden administration pushes for closer ties with Saudi Arabia. A key goal of President Biden's trip to Riyadh last month was to urge Gulf countries to increase oil production as the fallout from Russia's war on Ukraine affects prices, per Axios Middle East correspondent Barak Ravid.

The big picture: Abouammo and two others, Ali Alzabarah and Ahmed Almutairi, were initially indicted in 2019 for acting as agents of the government of Saudi Arabia without notification to the attorney general as required by law, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

  • Abouammo helped oversee relationships at Twitter with journalists and celebrities in the Middle East and North Africa, according to Reuters.

Details: Abouammo was found guilty after a nearly three-week trial. The jury took three days to deliberate.

  • He was convicted on two counts of wire fraud or conspiracy to commit wire fraud, two counts of money laundering, one count of falsifying records and one count of acting as an agent of a foreign government without properly disclosing that work.
  • The jury found Abouammo not guilty on five counts of wire fraud or conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Context: Abouammo was accused of accessing private information about users without authorization and sharing it with officials of the Saudi Arabian government while he was a Twitter employee.

  • He was also charged with obstruction of justice for providing false documents to the FBI about his payments from an official of the government of Saudi Arabia.
  • Prosecutors alleged that an adviser to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave Abouammo at least $300,000, along with a $20,000 luxury watch, Reuters reports.
  • He allegedly concealed the money by depositing it in a relative's account in Lebanon and having it wired to his own account in the U.S.

Of note: His former colleague Alzabarah was also accused of accessing Twitter accounts on behalf of Saudi Arabia but left the U.S. before being charged.

What they're saying: Abouammo's lawyers argued that the work he did at Twitter was part of his job.

Yes, but: "The government demonstrated, and the jury found, that Abouammo violated a sacred trust to keep private personal information from Twitter's customers and sold private customer information to a foreign government," U.S. Attorney Stephanie Hinds said in a statement, per Reuters.

Go deeper