Two former employees of Twitter and a third man from Saudi Arabia face U.S. charges of spying for the kingdom by digging up private user data and giving it to Saudi officials in exchange for payment, according to a complaint filed on Wednesday.
Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, who used to work for Twitter, and Ahmed Almutairi, who then worked for the Saudi royal family, face charges of working for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia without registering as foreign agents, according to a complaint filed against them.
According to the criminal complaint, Mr. Abouammo repeatedly accessed the Twitter account of a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family in early 2015. At one instance, he was able to view the e-mail address and telephone number associated with the account. He also accessed the account of a second Saudi critic to get personally identifiable information.
“This information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts,” the Justice Department said in a news release.
The court records unsealed Wednesday accuse Mr. Alzabarah of using his employment at Twitter to spy on an asylum seeker in Canada. Last month, Omar Abdulaziz, a dissident Saudi activist living in Quebec, filed a lawsuit against Twitter alleging the social-media company failed to protect him from spying by its employees. Mr. Abdulaziz is a prominent activist on social media and was a close confidante of murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
In his lawsuit, filed in California, Mr. Abdulaziz accuses Twitter of not properly investigating Mr. Alzabarah’s connections to foreign governments when they hired him, and failing to flag any risks that potential hires might try to hack into the accounts of Twitter users for political reasons.
Twitter sent out safety notices after firing Mr. Alzabarah in December, 2015, warning that the former employee had accessed private information on several Twitter users, including privacy researchers, academics and journalists, the lawsuit said. But the social-media company only told Mr. Abdulaziz that his account may have been compromised by a security bug.
The Globe has previously reported that Mr. Abdulaziz has likely been the target of Saudi spying efforts. The Citizen Lab released a report last fall saying it had “high confidence” that Saudi intelligence officials had used surveillance software to target Mr. Abdulaziz.
Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in confronting Iran, has faced intense Western criticism over its human-rights record, including over last year’s murder of journalist Mr. Khashoggi and its involvement in the devastating war in Yemen.
The U.S. government accuses Mr. Almutairi of acting as a go-between for the Saudi government and the Twitter employees. Mr. Abouammo is under arrest in Seattle, Washington while the other two are in Saudi Arabia, the department said.
The two men were given cash and other rewards, such as an expensive watch, for the information, the complaint said.
The Saudi embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Twitter said that it was grateful to the FBI and U.S. Justice Department. “We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service,” it said in a statement. “We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable.”
With a report from Tamsin McMahon