Saudi Arabia planted spies inside Twitter to shop details on critics, activists and journalists

One of the accounts Alzabarah accessed was that of prominent Saudi Omar Abdulaziz, who was close to murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The shadows of people holding mobile phones are cast onto a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken in Warsaw September 27, 2013 Kacper Pempel/Reuters

A massive Saudi Arabian scheme to keep critics under close watch by hiring spies inside Twitter has been unearthed by the US Department of Justice. In a major breach that should embarrass the microblogging giant, the Saudi Arabian government authorities recruited Twitter employees to leak the private data of thousands of Twitter users.

The revelation comes a year after prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Turkey by agents of the Saudi Arabian government. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was accused of direct involvement in the killing of dissident journalist Khashoggi in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Turkey's chief prosecutor said Khashoggi was strangled to death as soon as he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and that his body was then dismembered and dissolved in acid.

The corrupted Twitter staffers, who missed their access rights to steal sensitive data on people for the Saudi government, were rewarded with cash payment of tens of thousands of dollars as well as high-end luxury goods. It has emerged that Saudi Arabia turned to employing its spies inside Twitter after official requests to Twitter to turn in information on political activists and journalists critical of the government did not yield the results.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi YouTube grab

In one instance, a media partnership manager at Twitter handling the Middle East region launched a fly-by-night company to receive $100,000 from the Saudi government, the probe revealed. The staffer, identified as Ahmad Abouammo, stole data on people who the Saudi Royal family wanted to snoop on, after a secret meeting in London with his handlers from Riyadh.

Ali Alzabarah, who was an engineer at Twitter, was contacted by Saudi officials in Washington in 2015. Alzabarah has been accused of scraping off information on thousands of users immediately after the meeting. He stole information on 33 people whose Riyadh had sought through official means.

Rogue employee now works for Saudi Arabian government

In an apparent lapse in oversight within the company Alzabarah left his job in a huff when he was confronted within the company over his unauthorised access to information. He escaped by saying he did it out of curiosity and then flew with his family to Saudi Arabia. He now works for the Saudi government, the Associated Press reported.

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One of the accounts Alzabarah accessed was that of prominent Saudi Omar Abdulaziz, who was close to late Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Alzabarah passed on the information on Abdulaziz, who has more than 1 million followers, to his Saudi handlers, the complaint filed by the Department of Justice revealed.