Seattle, Nov 9 (AP/UNB) — Family and friends of a former Twitter employee accused of spying for Saudi Arabia call him a dedicated husband and father who has overcome recent mental health struggles, according to letters of support filed to federal court.
Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen and a media partnership manager for Twitter's Middle East region, is charged with acting as an agent of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government.
The case marks the first time 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 seven letters — four from family members, including Abouammo's wife, and three from former co-workers — were filed Thursday ahead of the hearing. The letters paint a portrait of a kind, caring man who is needed at home to support his family and friends.
Roy Abdo, who worked with Abouammo at the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, urged the court to double check the facts.
"Knowing Ahmad's personality, work ethics, and having worked with him on a personal level for over two years, something seems not right about this," Abdo wrote.
Judge Paula L. McCandlis on Friday ordered Abouammo released on bail with GPS monitoring, a mental health evaluation and travel restrictions. His release was then at least temporarily put on hold because federal prosecutors said they planned to file an appeal Friday afternoon.
Abouammo's attorney Christopher Black said during the hearing that Abouammo's wife, sister, uncle and a good friend were in court and that Abouammo is not a flight risk because he has no assets, is deeply in debt and surrendered his passports to agents last year.
Prosecutors allege Abouammo and another former Twitter employee, Saudi citizen Ali Alzabarah, were rewarded by Saudi royal officials with a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars funneled into secret bank accounts.
Alzabarah and a third suspect, a Saudi named Ahmed Almutairi who worked as a social media adviser for the Saudi royal family and acted as an intermediary with the Twitter employees, are believed to be in Saudi Arabia. Both are wanted by the FBI.
The federal complaint, unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, detailed a coordinated effort by Saudi government officials to recruit Twitter employees to look up the private data of 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.
Twitter said Wednesday it cooperated in a U.S. investigation of two former employees accused of accessing personal account information on behalf of the Saudi government.
The San Francisco-based social media company said in a statement it recognizes "the length bad actors will go to try and undermine" its service, and that there are tools in place to protect users with sensitive accounts.
A senior Saudi official in Washington said Thursday that "we expect all our citizens to abide by the laws of the countries in which they live." The official spoke with reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss issues sensitive to the government.
On LinkedIn, Abouammo lists his present work as a digital consultant with "Cyrcl," which Washington state records show was dissolved in 2017, as well as a co-founder of a "new startup that will redefine social."
He has previously worked at Amazon and Middle East Broadcasting Networks, both companies confirmed. However, the titles he listed on LinkedIn for those jobs did not match their records. His website states he is finishing a master's degree in management from Harvard University, which did not immediately confirm if he was enrolled.
In her letter to the court, Abouammo's wife, Zeina, called her husband "my backbone, my rock, and my companion." They have been married for 10 years and have three children together.
Zeina Abouammo wrote that they both suffered from mental health issues over the last year, "yet he was always strong and helpful." The allegations date back to 2014.
Abouammo's sister Amani said her brother helped her escape an abusive marriage and has taken care of her daughter, who has multiple disabilities.
"Ahmad is genuine, family guy, and generous," his cousin Rabih Abouammo wrote. "There is no way that he would jeopardize all of (this) for anything, he doesn't even need to."
Another former co-worker at the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Shirine Hossaini, told The Associated Press he was a "really sweet, happy, very thoughtful, really trustworthy" man who was not political.
"I find it really hard to believe Ahmad would be a part of that," she said. "I can't imagine anybody changing like that. That's a big shift if it's all true."
Facebook says it is deleting the name of the person who has been identified in conservative circles as the whistleblower who triggered a congressional impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's actions.
The company said Friday that mention of the potential whistleblower's name violates Facebook's "coordinating harm policy," which prohibits material that could identify a "witness, informant, or activist."
Facebook says it is removing mentions of the alleged whistleblower's name and will revisit this decision if the name is widely published in the media or used by public figures in debate. The policy is not new. Facebook says it has been applying it to the whistleblower case and removing the person's name for a few days.
On Twitter, though, the alleged whistleblower's name was circulating widely on Friday. The company does not have a policy against identifying whistleblowers by name and is not removing the posts.
Some of the stories identifying the person came from the conservative news site Breitbart, which Facebook counts as one of its news partners in a newly launched news section on its app. However, the company said it was also removing identifying posts on the whistleblower from Breitbart.
In a statement, Twitter said it prohibits the sharing of "personally identifiable information about any individual, including the alleged whistleblower." But the company's policy on such information does not consider a person's name to be private information, a category that does include details such as a person's address, contact information or medical records.
This is not the first time Twitter and Facebook diverged on important policies. Last week, Twitter said it is banning all political ads from its service, in sharp contrast to Facebook , which continues to defend running paid political ads, even false ones, as a free speech priority.
U.S. whistleblower laws exist to protect the identity and careers of people who bring forward accusations of wrongdoing by government officials. Lawmakers in both parties have historically backed those protections.
The Associated Press typically does not reveal the identity of whistleblowers.
So far, President Donald Trump has avoided identifying the whistleblower by name. Exposing whistleblowers can be dicey, even for a president. For one thing, doing so could be a violation of federal law.
While there's little chance Trump could face charges, revealing the name could give Democrats more impeachment fodder. It could also prompt a backlash among some Senate Republicans who have long defended whistleblowers.
Amid all this, a false claim about the identity of the whistleblower has also been circulating online. Falsely captioned photos of former White House staffer David Edelman circulated widely on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit this week as social media users tried to unmask the whistleblower.
They were possibly inspired by posts and stories shared by conservative outlets and the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., that claimed to reveal the person's identity.
Facebook will be forced to divulge details of its proposed cryptocurrency amid concerns about its impact on Australia's national security and banking.
News Corp Australia reported on Wednesday that eight regulators have joined forces to use their respective power to probe Facebook and Libra, the global cryptocurrency which it plans to launch in 2020.
Australian authorities have expressed fears that the currency could make it more difficult to enforce anti-money laundering and anti-terror laws while also enabling scams through the social media platform.
The regulators that have joined forces include the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and Austrac, the anti-money laundering regulator.
According to documents obtained by News Corp, ASIC's "emerging threat and harm committee" met in July to discuss "the potential disruption to Australian financial markets posed by the Libra crypto-asset and ecosystem."
A meeting between the watchdogs and Facebook executives in October failed to allay their concerns about Libra.
Ahead of the earlier ASIC meeting senior staff were warned that an "inability" to effectively supervise Libra could affect "all consumers (and) investors."
"The proposed Libra eco-system also poses many risks and threats, including the proliferation of scams based on Libra via mobile apps," briefing notes for the meeting said.
"We also expect that we may identify more risks and threats once we have more information."
Facebook announced plans for Libra in June, with the currency to be managed by a coalition of almost 30 technology companies.
Approximately 15 million Australians are active users of Facebook platforms including Instagram and secure messaging service WhatsApp.
Washington, Oct 23 (AP/UNB) — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is again appearing before Congress to face questions about his company's massive market power, privacy lapses and tolerance of speech deemed false or hateful.
Zuckerberg has been summoned to testify at a hearing Wednesday by the House Financial Services Committee on Facebook's plan to create a global digital currency, which has stirred opposition from lawmakers and regulators in the U.S. and Europe. But the full range of policies and conduct of the social media giant with nearly 2.5 billion users will be under the public glare.
It's the Facebook chief's first testimony to Congress since April 2018.
The company seems to spark public and official anger at every turn these days, from its shift into messaging services that allow encrypted conversations to its alleged anticompetitive behavior to its refusal to take down phony political ads or doctored videos.
Lawmakers from both parties and top regulators — including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell — have criticized Facebook's plan for the new currency, to be called Libra. They warn that it could be used for illicit activity such as money laundering or drug trafficking.
Rep. Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who heads the Financial Services panel, this summer asked Facebook to not move forward with the currency and a digital wallet called Calibra that would be used with it. Waters has called Libra "a new Swiss-based financial system" that potentially is too big to fail and could require a taxpayer bailout.
Several high-profile companies that had signed on as partners in Facebook's governing association for Libra have recently bailed, spelling a potentially rough road for the project. But many experts don't believe it's doomed.
Zuckerberg, in written testimony prepared for the hearing, aimed to reassure lawmakers that his company won't try to evade financial regulators as it readies Libra.
Facebook "will not be a part of launching the Libra payments system anywhere in the world unless all U.S. regulators approve it," he said. That's a stronger statement than Facebook official David Marcus made to Congress in July, when he said the company will not activate Libra until it has "fully addressed regulatory concerns and received appropriate approvals." Marcus leads the Libra project.
Zuckerberg is striving to defend Libra and alleviate concerns that the currency could sidestep regulators. Analysts say Libra could avoid regulation and launch in countries where it's not getting pushback, but this doesn't appear to be Facebook's intention.
Instead, Zuckerberg is pushing an optimistic vision of Libra and what it could mean for people around the world who don't have access to bank accounts.
While some critics see the recent exodus of some Libra partners as evidence of the plan's likely failure, U.S. regulators appear to view it as enough of a threat that they are considering the possibility of the Fed launching its own competitor currency.
"At the Federal Reserve, we will continue to analyze the potential benefits and costs of central bank digital currencies, and look forward to learning from other central banks," Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed's board of governors, said in a speech last week.
There is concern among regulators that the massive reserve created with money used to buy the new currency could supplant the Fed and destabilize the financial system, and that consumers could be hurt by Libra losses.
Zuckerberg also played the China card in his remarks, urging regulators to act quickly "While we debate these issues, the rest of the world isn't waiting. China is moving quickly to launch similar ideas in the coming months," he said.
The Facebook CEO also has cited competition from China as a compelling reason against breaking up the company.
The Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee are all conducting investigations of Facebook and the other huge tech companies amid accusations of abuse of their market power to crush competition.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, has advocated breaking up Facebook and other tech behemoths. She recently ran a fake political ad on Facebook taking aim at Zuckerberg to protest the company's policy of not fact-checking politicians' speech or ads in the same way it enlists outside parties to fact-check news stories and other posts.
In a major speech last week at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg defended the company's refusal to take down content from its platform it considers newsworthy "even if it goes against our standards."
Facebook, Google and Twitter are trying to oversee internet content while also avoiding infringing on First Amendment rights. The pendulum has swung recently toward restricting hateful speech that could spawn violence.
With just over a year left until the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Facebook is stepping up its efforts to ensure it is not used as a tool to interfere in politics and democracies around the world.
The efforts outlined Monday include a special security tool for elected officials and candidates that monitors their accounts for hacking attempts such as login attempts from unusual locations or unverified devices. Facebook said Monday it will also label state-controlled media as such, label fact-checks more clearly and invest $2 million in media literacy projects.
The company also announced it has removed four networks of fake, misinformation-spreading accounts based in Russia and Iran. These networks sought to disrupt elections in the U.S., North Africa and Latin America, the company said. In the past year, Facebook says it has taken down 50 such clusters of accounts, a sign that efforts to use its services to disrupt elections are not letting up.
"Elections have changed significantly since 2016 and Facebook has too," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a conference call Monday. The social network was caught embarrassingly off guard during the 2016 election, having let others use its platform to spread misinformation, manipulate voters and meddle with democracy.
The company says it will also add more prominent labels on debunked posts on Facebook as well as on Instagram. It will put labels on top of what are deemed "false" and "partly false" photos and videos. But Facebook will continue to allow politicians to run ads containing misinformation .
Critics say Facebook's measures don't go far enough and argue that the main problem is its business model, which depends on targeted advertisements and making sure that users stay engaged and entertained. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic presidential candidate and one of Facebook's biggest critics , has proposed breaking it up.
Facebook also says it will add more information about the people or groups who establish or manage Facebook pages. The company said Monday it has noticed groups and people "failing" to disclose the organizations behind pages so people think it is run independently. Starting with large pages in the U.S., Facebook says it is adding a new section about "organizations that manage this page."
Facebook says it will require the page's creators to add this information in order to run ads. The rule applies to pages that have gone through the company's business verification process and to pages that run ads about social issues, elections or politics. If the page creators don't post this information, they won't be allowed to advertise.