US authorities charged two Saudi nationals and an American citizen after an investigation into the mining of data on critics of Riyadh.
Authorities in the US have charged three people, two of them Twitter employees, for allegedly spying on critics of Saudi Arabia using the social network.
Two Saudi citizens and one American were accused of passing on the details to an individual named in the criminal complaint as ‘Royal Family Member-1’, a believed reference to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman who is also known as MBS.
The trio is believed to have used the network’s internal systems to mine personal information belonging to thousands of accounts.
Given the notoriety surrounding the crown prince’s treatment of his opponents and his reported role in ordering the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, activists on Twitter have raised questions about the safety of the platform.
“Many things about this story should trouble you - but overall it should remind you that social media is the greatest intelligence collection tool there is,” wrote foreign policy consultant Molly McKew, reflecting a widely held concern about what happens to information users share online, as well as the personal information provided to social media networks.
What does Twitter have to say?
In a statement sent to TRT World, a Twitter spokesperson said the company understood the ‘incredible risks’ facing users who wanted to use the platform to hold those in power accountable and had the tools in place to let them do so safely.
“We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service. Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” the statement read.
“We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.”
Ali Zabarah, one of those charged in the US criminal complaint, was previously named in a 2018 New York Times report, which said he was believed to have been a mole within the organisation passing on information to the Saudi intelligence service.
Hired by Twitter in 2013, Zabarah is believed to have collected information such as IP addresses to pass on to Saudi intelligence officers. Such information can then be used to physically locate a user.
Twitter placed Zabarah on administrative leave when told about the allegations and despite finding no evidence that information was passed on to the Saudis, he was fired by the social media network in 2015.
Prominent Saudi activist Manal al Sharif has quit Twitter and Facebook, saying the social media networks have become tools for "oppressive governments" to silence human rights campaigners pic.twitter.com/J8qSrzu8mV— TRT World (@trtworld) October 30, 2018
The spying scandal is not the first Twitter-related controversy to involve Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh affiliated bot armies are known to be active on the site, targeting critics of MBS in a tactic known as ‘dogpiling’, which involves flooding replies to an offending tweet by a critic with targeted harassment.
Other strategies involve the manufacture and spreading of fake news by retweeting en-masse, and also filing false abuse reports against critics to Twitter in the hope its automated systems will ban the user.
Wow, it all started out with an expensive gift. That’s how many #Saudi officials commit unethical crimes. Throw some money at someone in a high position and hope they bite the bait hard enough to do their dirty work for them. https://t.co/APib3uEo1L— Amani Al-Ahmadi | أماني الأحمدي (@amani_aal) November 7, 2019