Cybersecurity experts and former U.S. diplomats say they expect more international espionage via social networks as evidenced in the case of federal prosecutors charging two Twitter workers with spying for Saudi Arabia.
“This is another example of national security and American tech companies converging,” said Klon Kitchen, tech policy lead at the Heritage Foundation. “As they [tech firms] collect information they increasingly becoming targets for the world’s intelligence agencies.”
The federal espionage charges were made public Wednesday in San Francisco, accusing former Twitter employees of divulging personal user information to Saudi intelligence agents — including data about known critics of the Saudi government.
The charges have refocused attention on Saudi Arabia’s harsh treatment of dissidents and crackdown on dissent. The Middle Eastern kingdom weathered widespread condemnation over the slaying of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and prominent critic of the Riyadh government who is thought to have been killed and dismembered inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey. His remains have not been found.
U.S. officials and a United Nations investigative report have implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the journalist’s death.
The Twitter espionage case also has refocused attention on privacy and propaganda at social networks, which have been accused of misusing user data and spreading fake news to targeted audiences on their websites. U.S. officials say Facebook, Twitter and others were manipulated by foreign intelligence operations to serve as platforms for propaganda in the 2016 elections.
Cybersecurity experts say the latest Twitter scandal shows how social media firms, which manage the personal data for billions of users, are vulnerable to internal security breaches.
“This is the geopolitical equivalent of an ‘insider threat’ and the companies really need to understand that,” Mr. Kitchen told The Washington Times.
In documents unsealed Wednesday in federal court in San Francisco, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, are accused of acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government. They allegedly gave Saudi agents a host of personal data, including internet protocol addresses that can reveal a user’s location.
Mr. Abouammo appeared Wednesday in a federal court in Seattle, and has remained in custody. A hearing is scheduled for Friday.
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 recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service,” a Twitter spokesperson said in an email.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald M. Feierstein told The Times the case exposes a global trend of governments using social media to track citizens.
“This involves Saudi, but certainly, Saudi is not alone in trying to control the power of Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks in their countries,” said Mr. Feierstein, who directs the Middle East Institute’s government relations and policy programs.
The diplomat added that the case has called attention to issues of surveillance and privacy unfolding across the world — particularly how citizens want governments to protect their data — and how tech firms “can be good corporate citizens when it comes to protecting privacy and free speech.”
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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