The Saudi government recruited two Twitter employees to get personal account information of their critics, prosecutors said Wednesday, according to The Associated Press.
A complaint unsealed in US District Court in San Francisco detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi government officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts.
The accounts included those of a popular journalist with more than 1 million followers and other prominent government critics, the complaint alleges.
It also says that the employees — whose jobs did not require access to Twitter users’ private information — were rewarded with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funneled into secret bank accounts.
They were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the US government, according to AP.
The Saudi government had no immediate comment through its embassy in Washington.
Ahmad Abouammo, who left his job as the media partnership manager responsible for Twitter’s Middle East region in 2015, was also charged with falsifying documents and making false statements when questioned by FBI agents at his Seattle home — offences that carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison if convicted.
At his appearance in Seattle federal court Wednesday, Abouammo was ordered to remain in custody pending a detention hearing set for Friday.
Investigators alleged that a Saudi working as a social media adviser for the Saudi royal family recruited Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah by flying him to Washington, D.C., for a private meeting with an unnamed member of the family.
“Within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse,” the complaint says.
The effort included the user data of over 6,000 Twitter users, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter, investigators said.
After being confronted by his supervisors at Twitter, Alzabarah acknowledged accessing user data and said he did it out of curiosity, authorities said, according to AP.
Alzabarah was placed on administrative leave, his work-owned laptop was seized, and he was escorted out of the office. The next day, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter and has not returned to the United States, investigators said.
A warrant for his arrest was issued as part of the complaint.
Alzabarah reportedly accessed accounts of a number of prominent government critics, including that of Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent journalist with more than 1 million followers who was close to Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi who was killed while visiting the Saudi consulate in Turkey last year.
The Saudi social media adviser charged in the complaint went by the name Ahmed Almutairi or Ahmed Aljbreen.
Twitter on Wednesday thanked the FBI and the US Department of Justice for supporting the investigation.
“We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service. 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,” the company said in a statement.