The Washington Post earlier reported on the charges.
American companies like Twitter are attractive targets for foreign agents. “The U.S. has such a dominant position in social media and technology that we are a natural target for our enemies and frenemies,” said Mark D. Rasch, a former head of the Justice Department’s computer crime division. “They will use any means at their disposal to get individuals’ data from U.S. companies for their intelligence and, in this case, suppression efforts.”
In addition to Mr. Alzabarah and Mr. Abouammo, federal prosecutors charged Ahmed Almutairi, who previously ran a social media marketing company that did work for the Saudi royal family. He and Mr. Alzabarah are Saudi citizens, and Mr. Abouammo is an American, according to the complaint filed by prosecutors.
The communications between the Twitter employees and a Saudi official began in 2014, according to the complaint. Investigators did not contact Twitter until the end of 2015, when they informed executives that the Saudi government was grooming employees to gain information about the company’s users.
According to court documents, the Saudi official who developed the Twitter employees was the “secretary general” of a charitable organization owned by a member of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. That description pointed the MiSK Foundation, a technology-focused nonprofit founded by Prince Mohammed.
MiSK is led by Bader Al Asaker, whose title is secretary general. A person familiar with the case said Mr. Al Asaker is the foreign official who reached out to the Twitter employees.
Mr. Alzabarah had joined Twitter in 2013, rising through the engineering division. He had access to users’ telephone numbers and internet protocol addresses, which are unique identification numbers for internet-connected devices.
While at Twitter, Mr. Alzabarah had grown increasingly close to Saudi intelligence operatives, Western intelligence officials told company executives. The operatives eventually persuaded him to peer into the accounts of users they sought information on, including dissidents and activists who spoke against the crown, multiple people have told The Times.