A former Twitter employee who accessed the confidential data of Saudi Arabia’s royal family’s “users of interest” in exchange for bribes was sentenced Thursday to three and a half years in federal prison.
Ahmad Abouammo, 45, was convicted in August of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, international money laundering and falsifying records in a federal investigation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office United States of the Northern District of California. He was acquitted of multiple counts of wire fraud and honest services fraud.
“This case revealed that foreign governments will bribe insiders to obtain user information collected and stored by our Silicon Valley social media companies,” the US agent said. Stephanie M. Hinds said in a statement.
Abouammo, formerly of Walnut Creek, Calif., and later a resident of Seattle, had been employed at Twitter as manager of media partnerships for the Middle East and North Africa.
In late 2014, he began accepting bribes from a Saudi official in exchange for accessing and providing data on Twitter users who were dissidents and critics of the country, officials said.
Saudi Arabia has handed down decades-long prison sentences for social media comments in its crackdown on dissent, sparking a widespread backlash over human rights abuses, particularly after Saudi security agents in 2018 killed the columnist for Washington Post Jamal Khashoggi, who had written critically about the Saudi Crown. Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Federal prosecutors said the Saudi official who met with Abouammo gave him a luxury Hublot watch in London in December 2014. Abouammo then offered the watch for sale on Craigslist for $42,000.
After the meeting, Abouammo began repeatedly accessing information from Twitter accounts, “at least one of which was the account of an influential user who was critical of members of the Saudi royal family and the KSA. [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] government,” prosecutors wrote.
The official who met with Abouammo was the “head of a ‘private office’ of a member of the royal family” who was minister of state at the time and rose to become defense minister and deputy crown prince , prosecutors said.
After the meeting in London, Abouammo continued to communicate with the Saudi official about the “influential critical account” and others, according to the US attorney’s office.
In 2015, a bank account was opened in Lebanon in the name of Abouammo’s father shortly after Abouammo had traveled there. The account then received a $100,000 deposit from the Saudi official.
“Abouammo laundered the money by sending it to the United States in small wire transfers with false descriptions,” prosecutors said.
Another $100,000 was deposited into the account shortly after Abouammo left Twitter.
When questioned by the FBI about the transactions, Abouammo provided a false invoice for one of the payments, prosecutors said.
Abouammo was arrested in November 2019.
“Mr. Abouammo violated the trust placed in him to protect the privacy of people living in the United States by giving their personal information to a foreign power for profit,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Matthew G. Olsen of the Department of Justice’s Homeland Security Division said in the statement.