Former Twitter Employees Accused of Espionage

Ahmad Abouammo was arrested on November 5 for obstruction of justice and acting as an agent of a foreign government without the permission of the Attorney General (USA v. Abouammo 2:19-mj-00538). According to the FBI investigation, Abouammo, along with his alleged co-conspirators, Ali Alzabarah and Ahmed Almutairi (A.K.A. Ahmed Aljbreen) passed information about Twitter users to officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The charging document outlines that Abouammo and Alzabarah are former employees of the company who were recruited by Almutairi and an unidentified “Foreign Official” to use their positions to gain access to user information. This Foreign Official has a known link to Almutairi. At least some of the users whose data was accessed were public critics of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Family. Abouammo received a luxury watch and at least $300,000 from this Foreign Official. Almutairi is known to have asked for money and currently works for or with this Foreign Official in Saudi Arabia.

Abouammo is an American citizen who worked for Twitter from around November 2013 to May 2015. Alzabarah, a Saudi Arabian citizen, came to America in 2005 to study computer science on a Saudi Arabian scholarship. Alzabarah then worked for Twitter from around August 2013 to December 2015.

Abouammo’s job was a Media Partnerships Manager for the Middle East and North Africa. Alzabarah was a site reliability engineer.

Twitter collects user data to use for creating targeted advertising and customizing each user’s experience of the site and has a privacy policy to protect users from how this data is used and sold. As employees of the company, Abouammo and Alzabarah both agreed to follow Twitter’s policies, including those detailed in the Security Handbook which state user data to be confidential to outside entities without permission by the company.  Despite neither Alzabarah nor Abouammo needing access to user information for their roles at the company, both had access to it.

Since 2015, Twitter has added security measures to prevent its employees from gaining unnecessary access to user information. In a statement on November 6, Twitter thanked the FBI and U.S. DOJ and said that they “understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable,” and are “committed to protecting those who use [their] service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.”

The documents state that some contact between Abouammo and the Saudi government occurred through official channels at Twitter, when a PR firm representing the foreign government asked for help verifying the account of an unnamed Saudi news personality and later when the unnamed Foreign Official visited Twitter’s offices as part of a tour for Saudi business men. Abouammo is also known to have had in-person contact with Almutairi in San Francisco. After leaving the company in 2015 Abouammo continued contact with this Foreign Official and has continued to gain access to Twitter accounts through his contacts at the company.

According to evidence in the charging document, Alzabarah was in Washington D.C. at the same time as Almutairi and Saudi officials, including the unnamed Foreign Official and members of the Royal Family. Photographic evidence shows that Alzabarah met a Royal Family member on this trip.

Records show that after this trip, Alzabarah accessed user data for over 6,000 Twitter users even though he had not accessed similar data any other users for months and had no reason to access the information for his job. These accounts included at least 33 users that the Saudi Arabian government had a known interest in. In the following months, Alzabarah continued to access the user data for thousands accounts and communicate with Almutairi and the Foreign Official. Evidence also shows that Alzabarah went to Saudi Arabia while still employed at Twitter and was in contact with Almutairi’s offices while there. 

Alzabarah, along with his wife and daughter, fled the United States on December 3, 2015 after Alzabarah had been confronted by Twitter employees for his suspicious activity, and being escorted from the offices.

The only direct connection between Alzabarah and Abouammo indicated in the charging document is an incident in August 2015 when Alzabarah accessed Abouammo’s Twitter account.

Abouammo is being represented by Black Law and Will & Will, PLLC.