Twitter Spy Trial Underway as Former Employee Is Accused of Selling Dissidents’ Data to Saudi Prince

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Former Twitter executive Ahmad Abouammo faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of charges that he divulged protected user data about accounts critical of Saudi Arabia, Bloomberg reports.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Sampson is arguing that Abouammo was tasked with maintaining a “shopping list of Twitter users” that Bader Al-Asaker, a close associate and “right-hand man” of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, wanted to monitor due to anti-Saudi sentiment. Such a crime would have opened up the dissidents for abduction and torture. In return, Abouammo allegedly received $300,000 and a Hublot watch.

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Bloomberg reports that human rights organizations cite Abouammo’s actions leading directly to dissidents being “held in secret prisons, suffering electric shocks, sleep deprivation, beatings and other forms of torture.”

Prosecutors were shown a 2015 email Abouammo sent to Twitter’s former vice president of global media Katie Jacobs Stanton and her team in which he claimed to have brought “onboard of a new government leader.”

“I have built a strong relationship with the team of HRH Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud,” Abouammo wrote. “I am working with His Majesty’s team for an official announcement for Twitter now.”

Abouammo and Stanton, who was his supervisor at the time, first met the prince while dining at Saudi billionaire and royal Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud’s home. Promoting the social media platform to Saudi royals reportedly part of Abouammo’s job in finding “the world’s best content creators” and “making them successful,” Stanton said.

Sampson argued Al-Asaker recruited Abouammo, a U.S. citizen fluent in Arabic, as “an operative, a mole” in order to obtain the email addresses, phone numbers, IP addresses and dates of birth for anonymous Twitter users criticizing Saudi Arabia and the royal family. Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, said during the trial that Twitter offers a “robust space” for human rights activists to communicate anonymously. Compromising the safety of this online space can expose vulnerable individuals.

Abouammo left Twitter in 2015 for a job with Amazon. His lawyer, Jerome Matthews, opened the trial Thursday by arguing that “things aren’t always as they seem” and that “context matters, looking at the whole picture matters.” Judges have granted Abouammo bail in Seattle as the remainder of the hearing continues to unfold; it is expected to last about two weeks.

Abouammo is facing charges of acting as an illegal foreign agent in the U.S. and obstruction of justice, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.

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