The Justice Department charged two former Twitter employees Wednesday with exploiting their access to the company’s internal systems to help Saudi Arabia, raising questions about the security of technology companies as they grapple with scrutiny for spreading disinformation and influencing public opinion.
In its complaint, the Justice Department charged Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah. Alzabarah is a Saudi citizen, and Abouammo is an American, the complaint said.
A third person, Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi citizen, was also charged. Almutairi previously ran a social media marketing company that did work for the Saudi royal family, according to the complaint.
The case is the first time federal prosecutors have charged Saudis with acting as agents of a foreign power in the United States. It underscores the broad online effort that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and his advisers have conducted to silence critics both inside the kingdom and abroad.
Alzabarah joined Twitter in 2013, rising through the ranks of the engineering division.
During his employment, he grew increasingly close to Saudi intelligence operatives, Western intelligence officials told executives. The operatives eventually persuaded Alzabarah to peer into the accounts of users they sought information on, including dissidents and activists who spoke against the crown, multiple people have told The Times.
Once Twitter was notified of the breach of security, it placed Alzabarah on administrative leave. Although Twitter did not find direct evidence that Alzabarah had handed data over to the Saudi kingdom, he left the company in December 2015.
Alzabarah returned to Saudi Arabia, where he joined the MiSK Foundation, a tech-centric nonprofit.
Abouammo, a media partnerships manager at Twitter, began getting access to user data within a week after meeting with an unnamed Saudi official in London in 2014, according to the complaint. One of the users was a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family.
The Saudi government sent Abouammo and a member of his family at least $300,000, the complaint said. Abouammo quit his job at Twitter in May 2015 and has since moved to Seattle for a marketing job at Amazon.