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Ex-Twitter employees charged with spying on users for Saudis

San Francisco 

TWO former Twitter Inc employees and a Saudi national have been charged by the US with helping the government in Riyadh spy on dissidents who used the social network.

The employees, one from Twitter's hometown of San Francisco and the other in Saudi Arabia, were allegedly recruited to use their company credentials to gain access to the accounts of "users of interest" to the Saudi royal family, says a criminal complaint unsealed on Wednesday.

US attorney David Anderson in San Francisco said in a statement: "Saudi agents mined Twitter's internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users."

The charges show a dark side of Twitter's mission to be a free and open forum where everyone has a voice. Even as it has served as an outlet for criticism of repressive regimes, it has also been useful to those regimes for tracking down and punishing critics. Human rights organisations have tallied dozens of Twitter-related prosecutions in Saudi Arabia.

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Twitter said it is committed to protecting those who use its service and applauded the Justice Department's actions. But it is at the same time being sued by a Saudi dissident who alleges Twitter put his family in danger by failing to tell him about a hack into his account, which he attributes to one of trio charged in the US complaint, Ali Alzabarah.

Prosecutors say that Alzabarah, 35, of Saudi Arabia, and Ahmad Abouammo, 41, most recently of Seattle, were recruited by a third Saudi, Ahmed Almutairi, 30, who was working for the royal family. The trio have been charged with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government.

Only Abouammo has been arrested; the other two are not in the US, officials said. The criminal complaint traces his involvement with the Saudi government back to 2014, when he worked in one of Twitter's San Francisco offices as a media partnership manager for the Middle East and Africa. That was when he allegedly agreed to meet in London with an unidentified member of the inner circle of Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

He is said to have received an expensive wrist watch and hundreds of thousands of dollars in payment for collecting information on Twitter users - an activity he kept up even after leaving Twitter, by enlisting the help of former Twitter colleagues.

Prosecutors allege that Alzabarah was similarly recruited by Saudi intelligence operatives. BLOOMBERG

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