World: Why Spy on Twitter? For Saudi Arabia, It’s the Town Square - - PressFrom - US
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World Why Spy on Twitter? For Saudi Arabia, It’s the Town Square

17:45  08 november  2019
17:45  08 november  2019 Source:   nytimes.com

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — In Saudi Arabia , where a relatively closed culture leaves citizens few public forums to discuss news and politics, Twitter has become a kind of town square , the place where citizens meet to swap information and debate the latest issues.

Company workers reportedly obtained personal account information of critics of the government in Saudi Arabia .

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In Saudi Arabia, where a relatively closed culture leaves citizens few public forums to discuss news and politics, Twitter has become a kind of town square, the place where citizens meet to swap information and debate the latest issues.

a group of people walking down the street: Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. The platform has become the main forum for Saudis to discuss the news.© Jim Wilson/The New York Times Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. The platform has become the main forum for Saudis to discuss the news.

Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy has not banned the site, but it has taken extensive measures to shape the information that appears there and to silence or drown out dissidents who use it to post critical views.

The Justice Department’s indictment on Wednesday of two former Twitter employees accused of spying for Saudi Arabia cast rare light on one corner of the vast measures the kingdom has taken to shape what its citizens see when they go online.

Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia

  Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia Federal law enforcement is taking action against former Twitter workers who allegedly spied for Saudi Arabia. The Justice Department has charged Ali Alzabarah (the one whose activities first surfaced) and Ahmad Abouammo with using their combined access to monitor Twitter accounts on behalf of the Saudi government. Abouammmo, an American citizen, reportedly snooped on three accounts that included one revealing inner details of Saudi leadership. Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, is alleged to have obtained personal info for more than 6,000 accounts, including that of high-profile dissident (and Jamal Khashoggi ally) Omar Abdulaziz.

SAN FRANCISCO — Ali Alzabarah was an engineer who rose through the ranks at Twitter to a job that gave him access to personal information and account data of the social media service’ s millions of users.

Saudi citizen and former Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah is accused of using his role at the tech giant to spy on Among the users Alzabarah spied on was Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent critic Also Read: Why Twitter Can Afford to Ditch All Political Ads. “The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that

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Why is Twitter so big in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia provides no public spaces where citizens can gather to discuss news and politics. And the kingdom’s news media are state-owned or controlled, limiting the range of perspectives they carry.

But many Saudi citizens have multiple cellphones and fast internet, which have led them to use Twitter to engage both with the world and with their fellow citizens.

That has given the kingdom one of the world’s largest Twitterspheres.

According to one recent report, Saudi Arabia had 9.9 million active Twitter users, the fourth highest in the world, behind the United States, Britain and Japan. But in terms of the percentage of the population using the platform, Saudi Arabia was first, with 37 percent of residents doing so, compared with 18 percent in the United States.

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It 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." Saudi Arabia is a key US ally in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is alleged to have paid former Twitter employees to spy on critics of his government. According to Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle, Twitter is the main platform for Saudis to express their views and about a third of the country' s 30 million people are active users.

It can seem like everyone in Saudi Arabia is on Twitter: prominent Muslim clerics, well-known journalists, TV stars and even the 83-year-old monarch, King Salman, who has 7.8 million followers.

Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi writer who was killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul last year, had 1.6 million followers at the time of his death, allowing him to broadcast his views even after he’d been banned from Saudi news outlets. His direct line to fellow Saudis, which the kingdom was powerless to stop, may well have contributed to his death.

The platform’s importance has made it a key battleground for the government, which uses it to tout the kingdom’s policies, and a range of dissidents at home and abroad who use it to spread criticism of government policies and campaign for the release of political detainees.

How does the Saudi government handle Twitter?

Unlike other authoritarian governments in, say, Iran or China, Saudi Arabia has not blocked access to Twitter, perhaps considering it a useful, and relatively harmless, pressure valve for society. Instead, critics and researchers say, it has invested in a range of techniques to influence what Saudis see when they use the platform.

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TWO Twitter employees have been accused of spying for Saudi Arabia by snooping on thousands “The criminal complaint alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter ’s internal systems for personal " It ’ s a space in which the Saudi authorities have used various means to curtail critical voices, including by

Tweet It . The former Twitter employees that were charged with espionage accessed Twitter accounts to spy on behalf of Saudi Arabia , along with a third Saudi citizen that acted as their intermediary with the Saudi government. Ahmad Abouammo – U. S . Citizen.

These include hard tactics like arresting or putting on trial prominent Twitter personalities who criticize the government and softer efforts like promoting positive tweets and working to sideline negative ones.

“They can’t really block out these websites from the server side, so they have to contest the space,” said Alexei Abrahams, a research fellow at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. “If they pour enough resources in, then maybe social media becomes more useful to the regime than to the opposition. I’m not sure we’ve crossed that threshold yet, but we can’t be that far from it.”

To shape the online environment, the Saudi government has marshaled armies of accounts to promote pro-government content and attack critical voices, Mr. Abrahams said. These can be automated accounts, known as bots, or accounts run by people working for the Saudi government who use Twitter in a coordinated fashion, according to an investigation published by The New York Times last year.

Acting together, they can promote accounts or hashtags that, say, praise the kingdom’s leadership while diluting the presence of critical conversations. That can end up shaping what average Saudis find when they go online.

Saudis recruited two Twitter workers to spy on critics, feds say

  Saudis recruited two Twitter workers to spy on critics, feds say U.S. prosecutors say the Saudi government recruited two Twitter employees to get personal account information of their critics.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 thousands of Twitter (TWTR)  accounts.

Two former Twitter employees have been charged with spying on user accounts on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government “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 spokesperson said.

Federal prosecutors charged two former Twitter employees and a Saudi national with spying on users of the social-media platform who were critical of Riyadh and Justice Department says the two former employees accessed information about people who made posts critical of the Saudi royal family.

“You can make it appear that the weight of public opinion lies with the regime,” Mr. Abrahams said.

How do Saudi dissidents use Twitter?

Saudi dissidents, many of them abroad, use Twitter to broadcast their views to their countrymen inside the kingdom. They include human rights activists who track detentions and dissidents like Omar Abdulaziz, who lives in Canada and who posts frequent videos of himself commenting on current events and criticizing Saudi policies.

The Saudi government has tried to shut down these accounts. Mr. Abdulaziz says that his brothers in Saudi Arabia have been detained to pressure him to be quiet and that the Royal Court sent envoys to Canada to try to persuade him to come home and work for the government. He has refused.

The kingdom has also gone after the administrators of anonymous accounts, and it appears that this is why it may have sought to recruit spies inside Twitter.

Ali Alzabarah, one of the men indicted this week, was an engineer who had access to users’ personal information. Another, Ahmad Abouammo, could see users’ email addresses and phone numbers, sensitive information that could help the government unmask the people behind anonymous accounts.

Both men left Twitter in 2015, and no further efforts by the kingdom to infiltrate social media companies have been uncovered.

The killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who criticized the kingdom’s leadership, drew international attention to Saudi efforts to silence dissidents.

It appears that the kingdom is still working in cyberspace to promote its views.

“There are still tons of bots out there,” said Mr. Abrahams, the researcher.

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