Lessons Learned From a Saudi Spy Case at Twitter

Nov 12, 2019 | 09:00 GMT

The U.S. District Court of the Western District of Washington is pictured in Seattle on Nov. 8, 2019.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington is pictured in Seattle on Nov. 8, 2019. It might be the digital age, but Riyadh's recruitment of spies at Twitter harkens back to the espionage tactics of yesteryear.

(JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)


  • New charges against two former Twitter employees whom Saudi Arabia recruited for spying purposes demonstrate the need for companies to keep tight control on which employees are able to access what kind of information and more.
  • In this specific case, Riyadh was not chasing critical business secrets, but user data for a specific group of Twitter accounts. 
  • The case illustrates that the threat of old-fashioned human intelligence remains potent, as Riyadh wished to recruit insiders, rather than hack Twitter.

In an age in which cybersecurity is top-notch, sometimes all it takes for hostile intelligence to gain a treasure trove of information is some old-fashioned espionage tradecraft -- like finding an insider. In a criminal complaint filed Nov. 5 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the FBI accused two former Twitter employees and a third man of acting as agents of the Saudi government in the United States without declaring themselves. Two of the men, Ali Alzabarah and Ahmed Almutairi, are Saudi citizens, while the other, Ahmad Abouammo, is a U.S. citizen of Saudi descent. The men are charged with helping the Saudi government identify political dissidents and others on the social media platform who were critical of the government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  I've already written on the case for Stratfor's Threat Lens clients, but there are some important lessons in the affair for a wider audience...

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