If spying and espionage are charges you thought died during the Cold War, think again.
On Tuesday, a jury convicted Ahmad Abouammo, a former Twitter employee, of spying for the government of Saudi Arabia by collecting personal information of dissidents and critics of the royal family in the country and turning that information over to them.
Abouammo is a US resident born in Egypt and worked as a media partnership manager for Twitter in 2015. He basically helped important people in the Middle East and Africa promote their accounts and create better content. But in that position, he collected the personal data of users who were critical of the Saudi government, like phone numbers, email addresses and birthdays. He would then send it over to a contact who was a top aid to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and in exchange, he would get rewarded with gifts. Think watches and cash.
Abouammo wasn’t the only one involved. In 2019, federal prosecutors in the US charged him and another former Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah, with espionage, and eventually, authorities also included a third individual, Ahmaed Almutairi, in there too, saying that he had coordinated the whole thing. Abouammo has been the only one put into custody, and the other two are still wanted.
Once the Saudi government got this information, the crown prince reportedly used it to suppress dissidents in the country, taking the case from a pretty simple one of data privacy to one that potentially has much bigger consequences. In 2021, an activist named Ali Al-Ahmed sued Twitter, saying that his info wasn’t protected well enough.
Twitter hasn’t commented, but Abouammo’s public defender said it was a clumsy investigation and that the social media company wasn’t careful enough with user data. Abouammo faces 10 to 20 years behind bars.