Saudi Arabia, frustrated by growing criticism of its leaders and policies on social media, recruited two Twitter employees to spy on thousands of accounts, including those of prominent opponents, US prosecutors alleged on Wednesday.
The complaint unsealed in the US District Court in San Francisco detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi Arabian government officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of Twitter accounts, including e-mail addresses linked to the accounts and Internet protocol addresses that can give up a user’s location.
It appeared to link Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the powerful 34-year-old son of King Salman, to the effort.
The accounts included those of a popular critic of the government with more than 1 million followers and a news personality. Neither was named.
The complaint also alleged 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 US dollars funneled into secret bank accounts.
Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi Arabian citizen, were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the US government.
The complaint marks the first time that the kingdom, long linked to the US through its massive oil reserves and regional security arrangements, has been accused of spying in the US.
The allegations against the two former Twitter employees and a third man who ran a social media marketing company that did work for the Saudi Arabian royal family came a little more than a year after the execution of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and prominent critic of the Saudi Arabian government who was slain and dismembered in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Prince Mohammad has also been implicated by US officials and a UN investigative report in the assassination of Khashoggi.
The prince has said that he bears ultimate responsibility for what happens in the kingdom’s name, although he has denied orchestrating the slaying.
The criminal allegations reveal the extent to which the Saudi Arabian government went to control the flow of information on Twitter, Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle said.
The platform is the main place for Saudi Arabians to express their views and about one-third of the nation’s 30 million people are active users. However, the free-wheeling nature of Twitter is a major source of concern for its authoritarian government, Coogle said.
The kingdom has used different tactics to control speech, and keep reformers and others from organizing, including employing troll armies to harass and intimidate users online. It has even arrested and imprisoned Twitter users.
“If you combine that with what we know about at least these two individuals, and what went on in 2014 and into 2015, it’s pretty chilling,” Coogle said.
Twitter acknowledged that it cooperated with the criminal investigation and said in a statement that it restricts access to sensitive account information “to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.”
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