Ex-Twitter employee took bribes to obtain user data for Saudi official

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A former Twitter employee who accessed the confidential data of “users of interest” to the royal family of Saudi Arabia in exchange for bribes was sentenced Thursday to three and a half years in federal prison.

Ahmad Abouammo, 45, was convicted in August of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, international money laundering and falsification of records in a federal investigation, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of California. He was acquitted of several wire fraud and honest services fraud charges.

“This case revealed that foreign governments will bribe insiders to obtain the user information that is collected and stored by our Silicon Valley social media companies,” U.S. Atty. Stephanie M. Hinds said in a release.

Abouammo, formerly of Walnut Creek, Calif., and later a Seattle resident, had been employed with Twitter as a media partnerships manager for the Middle East and North Africa.

Beginning in late 2014, he began receiving bribes from a Saudi official in exchange for accessing and providing data about Twitter users who were dissidents and critics of the country, officials said.

Saudi Arabia has handed down decades-long prison sentences over comments on social media in its crackdown on dissent, drawing widespread backlash over human rights abuses — especially after Saudi security agents in 2018 killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who had written critically of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Federal prosecutors said the Saudi official who met with Abouammo gave him a luxury Hublot watch in London in December 2014. Abouammo then offered the watch for sale on Craigslist for $42,000.

After the meeting, Abouammo began repeatedly accessing information from Twitter accounts, “at least one of which was the account of an influential user who was critical of members of the Saudi Royal Family and the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] government,” prosecutors wrote.

The official who met with Abouammo was the “head of a ‘private office’ of a royal family member” who was a minister of state at the time and went on to become the minister of defense and deputy crown prince, prosecutors said.

After the meeting in London, Abouammo continued to communicate with the Saudi official about the “influential critical account” and others, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

In 2015, a bank account was opened in Lebanon in the name of Abouammo’s father shortly after Abouammo had traveled there. The account then received a deposit of $100,000 from the Saudi official.

“Abouammo laundered the money by sending it into the United States in small wire transfers with false descriptions,” prosecutors said.

Another $100,000 was deposited into the account shortly after Abouammo left Twitter.

When questioned by the FBI about the transactions, Abouammo provided a fake invoice for one of the payments, prosecutors said.

Abouammo was arrested in November 2019.

“Mr. Abouammo violated the trust placed on him to protect the privacy of individuals living in the U.S. by giving their personal information to a foreign power for profit,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said in the release.

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