Sen. Bob Menendez has a lot of questions for Twitter and the Trump Administration after the Justice Department charged two former Twitter employees with spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who serves as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has written two letters, one to State Department officials and another to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, asking for details on how Saudi Arabia was able to exploit an American company’s internal systems for its own goals. He also wants to know what Twitter, and the Trump Administration, are doing about it.
“As we know from the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi officials carefully surveil social media for any critical voices,” Menendez wrote, referring to The Washington Post columnist who was an espionage target before he was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. “However, these public charges reveal the extent to which Saudi Arabia is exploiting American companies for its oppressive tactics in the United States. This is unacceptable.”
The two former Twitter employees charged with spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia allegedly used accessed sensitive information about Saudi dissidents including Omar Abdulaziz, who was close with Khashoggi. Employees accessed user locations and identities, including their email addresses, phone numbers, and IP addresses, the complaint says. One of the men allegedly accessed the sensitive personal information of approximately 6,000 Twitter users on behalf of the Saudi Kingdom.
Now, Menendez has asked U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Abizaid, the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to explain whether they are raising concerns with Saudi officials about the apparent use of U.S. technology companies for espionage. Menendez also said Twitter must also do more to help prevent oppression and abuse of dissidents, and says he is working to understand whether Twitter has undermined U.S. national security by letting Saudi Arabia access data on its users.
“The United States takes pride in our innovative technologies that allow people around the world to connect and communicate in ways unheard of a generation ago,” he wrote in his letter to Dorsey. “Unfortunately, bad actors can and have used technological innovative for evil. The arrests of your former employees … highlights how these regimes will not stop at their own borders in order to pursue their repressive tactics and tighten their grip on power.”
Menendez went on to ask Dorsey if Twitter is creating new security protocols and training to protect user data, and inquire whether Twitter is flagging concerns to Saudi Arabia about how it has abused internal Twitter systems to surveil dissidents.
The senator’s inquiry comes as Twitter faces scrutiny for its influence over the flow of information online, its handling of user data, disinformation campaigns, and ad-targeting. This new line of questioning shows how Twitter, and perhaps other Silicon Valley giants, may be held to a higher standard moving forward in cases of espionage linked with their platforms, and how they may be contributing to foreign espionage operations.
A Twitter spokesperson said the company is “committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.” Twitter has notified account holders affected by this case of Saudi Arabian spying, the company says.
The State Department did not immediately respond to request for comment.
One former Twitter employee charged, Ali Alzabarah, has fled to Saudi Arabia, according to the criminal complaint. The DOJ has issued a warrant for his arrest.
The fate of the other former employee, Ahmad Abouammo, remains in flux. He is being held in Seattle, Washington following his arrest, and a magistrate judge has ruled that he be released on the condition that he submit to GPS monitoring. But the U.S. government has argued he is a flight risk, according to court documents.
He is set to face his charges Nov. 19 in California, according to a copy of U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s calendar.