Saudi Arabia recruited two Twitter employees to gather confidential personal information on thousands of accounts that included prominent government opponents, according to prosecutors in the United States.
A complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi government officials to recruit employees at the social media giant to look up the private data of Twitter accounts, including email addresses linked to the accounts and internet protocol addresses that can give up a user's location.
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 dollars funneled into secret bank accounts. Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government.
The Saudi government had no immediate comment through its embassy in Washington. Its state-run media did not immediately acknowledge the charges.
The complaint marks the first time that the kingdom, long linked to the U.S. through its massive oil reserves and regional security arrangements, has been accused of spying in America.
The allegations against two former Twitter employees, and a third man who ran a social media marketing company that did work for the Saudi royal family, comes a little more than a year after the execution of Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post columnist and prominent critic of the Saudi government was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Under King Salman and his son, 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has aggressively silenced and detained government critics even as it allows women to drive and opens movie theaters.
Prince Mohammed also has been implicated by U.S. officials and a United Nations investigative report in the assassination of Khashoggi.
The allegations in the complaint illustrate the extent to which the Saudi government was prepared to control the flow of information on Twitter, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Twitter is the main place for Saudis to express their views, and about a third of the nation's 30 million citizens are active users. But the free-wheeling nature of Twitter is a major source of concern for the authoritarian regime, Coogle said.
The government 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.
Twitter acknowledged that it cooperated in 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."
"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," the statement said. "We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work."
A critic said Twitter didn't live up to its principle of restricting access to information about private individuals to the smallest possible number of employees.
"If Twitter had implemented this principle, this misappropriation of information would not have been possible," said Mike Chapple, who teaches cybersecurity at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business.
"Social media companies must understand the sensitivity of this information and restrict access to the smallest possible number of employees. Failing to do so puts the privacy, and even the physical safety, of social media users at risk."
After admitting his actions, Alzabarah was placed on administrative leave, his work-owned laptop was seized, and he was escorted out of the Twitter office in California. The next day, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter and has not returned to the United States, investigators said. A warrant for his and Almutairi's arrests were issued as part of the complaint.