A former Twitter employee was convicted by a US court on Tuesday of spying for Saudi Arabia after he reportedly handed over personal information of users who criticised the kingdom to a Saudi official close to the royal family.
Ahmad Abouammo, who worked at Twitter from 2013 to 2015, was found guilty of charges including acting as an agent for Saudi Arabia, money laundering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and falsifying records. He was acquitted on five other counts of wire fraud.
Prosecutors said that Abouammo, a dual citizen of the US and Lebanon, accessed the email accounts and phone numbers of accounts that criticised the Saudi government and then provided those details to a Saudi official in exchange for large sums of money.
One of the users whose data Abouammo reportedly accessed is Mujtahidd, an anonymous account once described as “the Saudi version of Wikileaks.”
In exchange for sharing that information with a Saudi official affiliated with the royal family, Abouammo was gifted a luxury watch reportedly worth more than $40,000, and received three $100,000 payments wired to a Lebanese bank account in his father’s name.
Saudi spy tech
Now that social media has made public debate all the more easy, the regime has extended its operations to intimidate and silence outspoken users on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and uses sophisticated surveillance software to hack dissidents’ accounts and issue threats.
Last year, the brothers and friends of Canadian-based Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz were arrested in what he saw as an attempt to force him to mute his popular criticism online. Soon after, he learned his phone had been hacked through the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp by a Saudi-linked operator of the Israeli spy software Pegasus.
Abdulaziz and London-based critic Yahya Assiri were both associates of Jamal Khashoggi. Assiri and YouTube satirist Ghanem Almasarir were the next to learn their phones’ cameras, microphones, contacts and messages were all being silently monitored through the Israeli software.
Mohammed bin Salman’s former top adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, even tweeted in 2017 that the government had ways to unmask anonymous Twitter users.
Thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts have also been deployed at key moments to turn political conversation in the state’s favor and harass other users. While both companies have attempted to suspend the bots and pages pushing state propaganda, experts say the suspensions are unlikely to affect the sheer number spreading disinformation.
Those efforts, and the recent allegations of Saudi infiltration of Twitter, highlight just how much of a threat the regime sees social media platforms.
Israeli Cyber Firm Negotiated Advanced Attack Capabilities Sale With Saudis
The Israeli company NSO Group Technologies offered Saudi Arabia a system that hacks cellphones, a few months before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his purge of regime opponents, according to a complaint to the Israel Police now under investigation.
A Haaretz investigation based on testimony and photos, as well as travel and legal documents, reveals the Saudis’ behind-the-scenes attempts to buy Israeli technology.
Djibouti: Nest of Spies
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has ordered the establishment of a security center in Djibouti for spying operations.
The Arabic-language al-Ahad al-Jadid reported on its Twitter account that it has gained access to secret documents which reveal a $2bln deal between Saudi Arabia and Djibouti.
The deal includes setting up a center for monitoring and spying on the opposition figures and hacking operations against the neighboring states, including Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, it added.