Nov. 6 (UPI) -- Federal prosecutors accused three people, including two former Twitter employees, with spying in the United States for Saudi Arabia.
In court documents unsealed Wednesday in a federal San Francisco court, prosecutors charged U.S. citizen Ahmad Abouammo, 41, and Ali Alzabarah, 35, of Saudi Arabia of using their positions at the social media giant to access the private user data of Saudi dissidents and thousands of people at the behest of the Saudi government.
Prosecutors also charged Saudi national Ahmed Almutairi, 30, as acting as a "go-between" to the Twitter employees and the Saudi government.
In the complaint, prosecutors said Abouammo and Alzabarah broke Twitter policy to access personal information of certain Twitter users for Saudi Arabia in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars and at least one luxury watch.
"Specifically, representatives of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Royal Family sought the private information of Twitter users, including their email addresses, IP addresses and dates of birth of persons some of whom published posts deemed by the Saudi Royal Family to be critical of the regime," the Department of Justice said in a press release. "This information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts."
According to the complaint, from Dec. 12, 2014 to at least March 12, 2015, Saudi Arabia had Abouammo access the private information of at least two Twitter users, a prominent critic of the Saudi Arabia and the Royal Family with more than a million followers and an individual impersonating as a member of the Saudi Royal Family.
Prosecutors in the complaint accused Alzabarah of accessing the personal data of over 6,000 Twitter users from May 21 to Nov. 18, 2015. He is also accused of accessing the personal information attached to 33 usernames Saudi Arabian law enforcement had made emergency disclosure requests to Twitter for.
One of the users Alzabarah accessed the information of included a well-known and influential Saudi critic with asylum in Canada, prosecutors said.
According to the complaint, in his position as a site reliability engineer, Alzabarah had "no legitimate business purpose" to access user detail.
After being confronted by Twitter over his access to user data, Alzabarah, his wife and his daughter flew from San Francisco International Airport to Saudi Arabia, where he is currently believed to be living, according to the complaint. Almutairi is also believed to be in Saudi Arabia. Federal prosecutors have issued warrants for their arrest.
Abouammo made his initial federal court appearance in Seattle on Wednesday afternoon.
If convicted, the three men face a maximum statutory sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for acting as agents of a foreign government. Abouammo faces an additional 20 years in prison for the charge of obstruction justice by fabricating an invoice provided to the FBI during the course of the investigation.
In a statement, Twitter thanked the FBI and the Justice Department for their work.
"We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service," Twitter said. "Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees. 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. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work."