FLASHBACK: Twitter Employees Indicted For Using Company’s Internal System To Spy On Behalf Of Saudi Arabia

  • Twitter acknowledged that hackers who penetrated the accounts of former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden gained access to internal company tools through social engineering attacks on employees.
  • News of the attack comes several months after the Department of Justice accused former Twitter employees of using internal tools for the purpose of spying on Saudi dissidents and American citizens. 
  • Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri wrote a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey Wednesday after the attack, urging him to ask the DOJ to take “any necessary measures” to secure the platform.

News of hackers carrying out a massive operation targeting several high profile Twitter accounts Wednesday comes months after the FBI charged former company employees of using the system to spy on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

The Department of Justice accused former Twitter employees Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo in November 2019 of using their access to the company’s internal tools to snoop on American citizens, The Washington Post reported in 2019. Hackers seriously compromised the social media website Wednesday after gaining access to the company’s internal system.

The company confirmed in a tweet thread Wednesday that hackers gained access to the tools through social engineering attacks on employees. (RELATED: Josh Hawley Urges Twitter To Call In FBI To Help Stop Massive Cyberattack)

The accounts of former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, and billionaire Elon Musk were among several hacked for the purpose of asking users to send money to a bitcoin address. The address collected more than $100,000, NBC News reported, citing a public register of bitcoin transactions.

Saudi operatives groomed Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen who was accused of obtaining the personal data of more than 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015 on behalf of the Saudi Kingdom, The New York Times noted in its report on the complaint.

HANGZHOU, CHINA – SEPTEMBER 04: Saudi Arabia Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri – Pool/Getty Images)

One of the accounts belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a dissident who was close to journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to the Post.

The CIA concluded in 2018 that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered Khashoggi’s assassination in 2018.

Alzabarah and Abouammo left Twitter in 2015, the Post reported in 2019. Bader Al Asaker, a Saudi official who reportedly leads a charitable organization belonging to Prince Mohammed, paid Abouammo nearly $300,000 for his efforts and also gave him a watch worth about $20,000, the Post reported, citing the FBI complaint.

Abouammo met with Asaker in 2014 and began illicitly accessing data for the Saudis within a week of the meeting, according to the complaint. (RELATED: Hackers Compromise Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s Twitter Accounts, Promote Bitcoin Scam)

Twitter hired Alzabarah in August 2013 as a site reliability engineer. He began working as a Saudi agent in May 2015, the complaint alleges. He began trawling through Twitter users’ private data within a week of flying to San Francisco from Washington, D.C., where he had plans to meet with Asaker, according to the complaint.

Twitter restricts access to the instrument panel “to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” a company spokesman told the Post in 2019 on condition of anonymity, citing concerns about employee safety.

He added: “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. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work.”

Twitter has not responded to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

Another Saudi citizen, Ahmed Almutairi, acted as an intermediary between Alzabarah, Abouammo, and Saudi officials, the Post reported, citing a statement from prosecutors. Almutairi is also charged with spying. Alzabarah and Almutairi are in Saudi Arabia, the report notes.

The DOJ has not responded to the DCNF’s request for comment about the status of the complaint.

Sen. Josh Hawley urged Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a letter Wednesday to ask the DOJ to take “any necessary measures” to secure the social media platform after hackers compromised the high profile accounts.

“I am concerned that this event may represent not merely a coordinated set of separate hacking incidents but rather a successful attack on the security of Twitter itself,” Hawley, a Republican, wrote in the letter. “As you know, millions of your users rely on your service not just to tweet publicly but also to communicate privately through your direct message service.”

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