A former Twitter employee found guilty of spying on users on behalf of the Saudi royal family has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
Ahmad Abouammo, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen who helped oversee media partnerships for Twitter in the Middle East and North Africa, was found guilty in August of taking bribes from an aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In return, he allegedly supplied sensitive account info that could help track and silence dissidents.
Prosecutors had sought a prison term of just over seven years, saying they wanted a "sentence strong enough to deter others in the technology and social media industry from selling out the data of vulnerable users." Abouammo faced a maximum penalty of decades in prison.
Abouammo Received Thousands of Dollars, Luxury Gifts from Royal Family Aide
As part of his involvement, Abouammo provided the personal information of users critical of the Saudi government. This data included phone numbers and birth dates that were later provided to a Saudi government agent tied to the royal family. He was sentenced Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
The former Twitter media partnership manager said he was only doing his job, but evidence revealed that he received $300,000 and a $20,000 Hublot watch from bin Salman's aide.
Even after Abouammo left Twitter in May 2015, he still helped the Saudi government by contacting former co-workers and encouraging them to verify particular Saudi accounts or remove posts that the Saudi agent highlighted as violating the site's terms of service, an FBI agent said in their testimony. He received hundreds of thousands of dollars and used some of that money to put a down payment on a home in Seattle, Wash.
Saudi Government Penalizes Users Critical of Government on Social Media
The Saudi government severely penalizes anti-government expression on social media sites like Twitter. In April, courts sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi citizen and 34-year-old mother of two children, to 34 years in prison for tweets protesting the government.
Two other men were charged in the scheme. Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, is another former Twitter employee who prosecutors say acquired personal info for over 6,000 accounts, including that of high-profile dissident (and Jamal Khashoggi ally) Omar Abdulaziz. A third man, Ahmed Almutairi, was also charged but didn't work at Twitter. Instead, he allegedly served as a contact between Twitter staffers and the Saudi government. Of the three, only Abouammo was in the US to face charges.