The Saudi government, frustrated by growing criticism of its leaders and policies on social media, recruited two Twitter employees to gather confidential personal information on thousands of accounts that included prominent opponents, prosecutors alleged Wednesday.
The 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 Twitter accounts, including email addresses linked to the accounts and internet protocol addresses that can give up a user's location.
The accounts included those of a popular critic of the government with more than 1 million followers and a news personality. Neither was named.
The complaint also alleged that the employees — whose jobs did not require access to Twitter users' private information — were rewarded with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funneled into secret bank accounts. Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, were charged with acting as agents of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government.
The Saudi government had no immediate comment through its embassy in Washington. Its state-run media did not immediately acknowledge the charges.
The complaint marks the first time that the kingdom, long linked to the U.S. through its massive oil reserves and regional security arrangements, has been accused of spying in America.
The allegations against two former Twitter employees and a third man who ran a social media marketing company that did work for the Saudi royal family comes a little more than a year after the execution of Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post columnist and prominent critic of the Saudi government was slain and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Saudi Arabia under King Salman and his son, 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have aggressively silenced and detained government critics even as it allows women to drive and opens movie theaters in the conservative kingdom.
Prince Mohammed also has been implicated by U.S. officials and a United Nations investigative report in the assassination of Khashoggi. The prince has said he bore ultimate responsibility for the kingdom, though he denies orchestrating the slaying.
The criminal allegations reveal the extent the Saudi government went to control the flow of information on Twitter, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch.
The platform is the main place for Saudis to express their views, and about a third of the nation's 30 million people are active users. But the free-wheeling nature of Twitter is a major source of concern for the authoritarian regime, Coogle said.
The government has used different tactics to control speech and keep reformers and others from organizing, including employing troll armies to harass and intimidate users online. It has even arrested and imprisoned Twitter users.
The crown prince's former top adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, who also served as director of the cyber security federation, started the "Black List" hashtag to target critics of the government. He ominously tweeted in 2017 that the government had ways of unmasking anonymous Twitter users.
"Does a pseudonym protect you from #the_black_list? No," al-Qahtani wrote, according to a report by Coogle released this week. "1) States have a method to learn the owner of the pseudonym 2) the IP address can be learned using a number of methods 3) a secret I will not say."
"If you combine that with what we know about at least these two individuals and what went on in 2014 and into 2015, it's pretty chilling," Coogle said.
Al-Qahtani has been sanctioned for his suspected role in orchestrating the brutal killing of Khashoggi. His Twitter account was suspended in September for violating its platform manipulation policy.
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 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 statement said. "We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work."
A critic said Twitter didn't live up to its principle of restricting access to information about private individuals to the smallest possible number of employees.
"If Twitter had implemented this principle, this misappropriation of information would not have been possible," said Mike Chapple, who teaches cybersecurity at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. "Social media companies must understand the sensitivity of this information and restrict access to the smallest possible number of employees. Failing to do so puts the privacy, and even the physical safety, of social media users at risk."
Abouammo was also charged with falsifying documents and making false statements to obstruct FBI investigators — offenses that carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison if convicted.
At his appearance in Seattle federal court Wednesday, Abouammo was ordered to remain in custody pending a detention hearing set for Friday.
His lawyer, Christopher Black, declined to comment, as did Abouammo's wife, who did not give her name.
The complaint said Abouammo, a media partnership manager for Twitter's Middle East region, and Alzabarah, a site reliability engineer at Twitter, worked with an unnamed Saudi official who leads a charitable organization belonging to a person named Royal Family Member 1.
Prosecutors said a third defendant, a Saudi named Ahmed Almutairi who worked as a social media adviser for the Saudi royal family, acted as an intermediary with the Twitter employees.
The complaint said Almutairi recruited Alzabarah and flew him to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2015, when a Saudi delegation visited the White House.
"Within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse," the complaint said.
The effort included the user data of over 6,000 Twitter users, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter, investigators said.
After being confronted by his supervisors at Twitter, Alzabarah acknowledged accessing user data and said he did it out of curiosity, authorities said.
Alzabarah was placed on administrative leave, his work-owned laptop was seized, and he was escorted out of the office. The next day, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter and has not returned to the United States, investigators said.
A warrant for his and Almutairi's arrests were issued as part of the complaint.
Human Rights Watch says a leader of a banned Cambodian opposition party has been detained in Malaysia after Cambodia's government said it won't allow her and others to return home.
The group's Asia deputy director Phil Robertson says Mu Sochua, vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was detained by immigration officials upon landing at the Kuala Lumpur airport Wednesday night from Jakarta.
The opposition politicians, led by party leader Sam Rainsy, have planned to return home with followers to spark a popular movement to oust autocratic long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen. Their bid hit a roadblock after Thailand barred them from entering.
Robertson called Thursday for Mu Sochua's immediate release and urged Malaysia not to do Phnom Penh's "dirty work in cracking down against the CNRP exiles."
Chile's president sent a bill to Congress on Wednesday that would raise the minimum wage, one of a series of measures to try to contain nearly three weeks of anti-government protests over inequality in one of Latin America's richest countries.
President Sebastian Piñera signed the measure that seeks to guarantee a minimum salary of about $470 a month as demonstrations demanding improved social services and greater equality continued. Some groups clashed with police in the capital, while hundreds of honking vehicles traveling in a caravan caused massive traffic jams to demand a reduction in tolls.
Flag-waving demonstrators brought traffic to a standstill in some roads and affected many commuters. Television images showed Finance Minister Ignacio Briones, who was headed to Congress in the port city of Valparaiso, stepping down from his vehicle to talk to truck drivers.
"We have a series of huge social demands, and you are all aware of that. People are having a really, really rough time in all sectors," he told them. "It's easy to get riled up and think that we can suddenly address them all, but just like in a home, if you spend all the savings, then what?"
The unrest began last month over a hike to subway fares, but it has grown into a massive movement demanding a broad range of changes. Most of the protests have been peaceful, but some have turned violent. At least 20 people have died in clashes, looting and arson that forced the cancellation of two upcoming major international summits.
Chile's center-right government has responded with a host of proposed changes that must be approved by Congress. But many Chileans say they're a mere Band-Aid that fails to address deep social inequality that has been unresolved since Chile returned to democracy in 1990 after a 17-year dictatorship.
"The measures taken up to now by the government are an act of desperation," said Jorge Cabrera, a street vendor in the Chilean capital. "They're not going to convince me with momentary proposals; these are things that we've been asking for more than 30 years."
Many slam what they label a "neoliberal" economic model that on the surface makes Chile seem like a Latin American economic success story, while it masks a widely criticized pension system and hybrid public and private health and educations systems that give better benefits to the rich, who can afford to pay more.
Some protesters are demanding a new constitution to replace the 1980 charter written under Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 military dictatorship. It allows many social services and natural resources, including water, to be wholly or partially privatized.
Flor Silva, a 70-year-old retiree, said Piñera's plan to increase the minimum wage seems like a bad joke because no one can survive with that money. But she still hopes it helps.
"Even a coin helps us since prices keep going up," she said.
Protests were being staged in cities nationwide. Riot police fired water cannons at crowds of rock-throwing demonstrators and violent clashes flared up outside one of Latin America's tallest skyscrapers. Authorities said that a police officer had been detained after he was accused of injuring two minors with buckshot inside a school in Santiago.
A U.N. human rights team has been gathering testimony about hundreds of people allegedly injured by Chile's police during the protests.
The team has heard accounts about ruptured eyeballs, broken bones and other serious injuries inflicted by police pellets or the impact of tear gas canisters.
Chile's state Medical College said more than 180 people have suffered severe eye injuries, most of them caused by rubber bullets used to disperse crowds in the protests.
Gunmen attacked a convoy near a Canadian mining site in Burkina Faso, killing at least 37 people and wounding 60 others, the regional governor said late Wednesday.
Montreal-based Semafo said the bloodshed happened about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from its Boungou mine in Burkina Faso's Eastern region and involved five buses of employees who were being accompanied by a military escort.
Col. Saidou Sanou, the region's governor, gave the provisional casualty toll in a statement. The mining company said only that it was aware of "several fatalities and injuries."
"Boungou mine site remains secured and our operations are not affected," Semafo said in its statement. "We are actively working with all levels of authorities to ensure the ongoing safety and security of our employees, contractors and suppliers."
The area has become increasingly precarious for Semafo, which operates two gold mines in Burkina Faso. Last year, an employee and subcontractor were killed when a bus was targeted by bandits, according to Canadian Press. Later last year, five members of Burkina Faso's security forces were killed in an attack near the Boungou mine.
Sylvain Leclerc, spokeswoman for the Canadian foreign ministry, said there were no reports of any Canadian citizen among the casualties. She added that Canada's government condemns the attack and supports efforts to bring peace to Burkina Faso.
The violence underscores the rapidly deteriorating security situation in once peaceful Burkina Faso, which has been infiltrated by jihadists who have been active for years in neighboring Mali. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Islamic extremists have staged dozens of attacks on churches and public officials across the north of Burkina Faso the last few years.
Concerted military actions by five regional countries, along with a French operation, have failed to stem the growing violence.
The country, which experienced its first major extremist attack in 2015, is a gateway south into coastal West Africa, and regional leaders worry the extremists could be moving into Togo and Benin.
A judge ruled Wednesday that Hawaii tax authorities may subpoena Airbnb for records of its hosts as the state investigates whether operators of vacation rentals have been paying their taxes.
First Circuit Court Judge Bert Ayabe approved the subpoena after a brief hearing. Airbnb and the state Department of Taxation have already agreed which records the company will provide: those of 1,000 Hawaii hosts who received the most revenue from 2016 through 2018.
The company also will provide data for hosts who had more than $2,000 in annual revenue during those years, but their identities will remain anonymous. The state may then request individual records for those hosts, but it will be able to obtain information on only 500 hosts every two weeks.
If a host files a legal challenge, Airbnb won't provide the data until the case is resolved.
The subpoena sets the foundation for similar enforcement action the state may take with other vacation rental platforms, Department Director Rona Suzuki said in a statement.
"We look forward to receiving the data specified in the agreement with Airbnb," she said.
Hawaii said it needs the subpoena because it can't get the data another way and requires the court's permission to serve it because the investigation targets a group of taxpayers, not specific individuals.
In court filings, the state said many hosts don't generate enough revenue for Airbnb to send the IRS relevant tax forms for them. Another challenge is the relative anonymity hosts are given on the website, where rental operators are often identified by a first name.
An investigation by tax authorities found 70.4% of Hawaii listings on Airbnb's website in April didn't include tax identification numbers in violation of Hawaii law.
The state first sought to subpoena tax records from Airbnb last year when it asked a judge to order the company to hand over a decade of vacation rental receipts. But a judge denied the motion.
The state filed a new petition in June seeking approval for a revised subpoena. The department and Airbnb began negotiations after that.
Cities and states for years have been grappling with how to best to regulate short-term rentals. Earlier this year, Honolulu enacted strict penalties on those operating vacation rentals without permits. On Tuesday, voters in Jersey City, New Jersey, approved new regulations on short-term rentals.