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Saudi Arabia Pays Twitter Insiders $300K for Account Info



In the world of espionage, the nation-state is always looking for insiders with access to desired information, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is no different than any other country. The difference between Saudi Arabia and many other countries is how it uses inside information to monitor their citizenry. Free speech as defined in the U.S. First Amendment doesn’t exist in Saudi Arabia; thus, dissidents and critics of the country or royal family oftentimes find themselves on the receiving end of the Saudi government’s internal security efforts.

It’s against this backdrop we witness individuals representing the Kingdom focused on spotting, accessing and ultimately recruiting individuals with access to information of interest to Saudi Arabia in its efforts to monitor dissent among its citizens and critics—this time at Twitter.

The Twitter Insiders

According to the criminal complaint released Nov. 6 by the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), two Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammao (41, of Seattle), a “Media Partnerships Manager” at Twitter, and Ali Alzabarah (35, of Saudi Arabia), a site reliability engineer at Twitter, were successfully recruited to provide account information—including content, contacts and  email addresses, phone numbers, IP addresses and dates of births—to representatives of the Saudi government. The recruitment of the two Twitter employees was facilitated by Ahmed Almutairi, aka Ahmed Aljbreen, (30, of Saudi Arabia) who also was named in the criminal complaint.

The Saudi representatives are not named but are described as “representatives of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Royal Family.” That may infer the unidentified Saudi individuals were representing the office of Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (MBS), whose office’s track record of pursuing and persecuting Saudi dissidents is well-documented (think: Khashoggi).

Abouammao was arrested in Seattle Nov. 5. Both Alzabarah and Almutairi absconded and are presumed to be in Saudi Arabia. Arrest warrants have been issued for both individuals.

An FBI special agent in charge (SAC) for the San Francisco Division of the FBI commented, “The FBI will not stand by and allow foreign governments to illegally exploit private user information from U.S. companies. These individuals are charged with targeting and obtaining private data from dissidents and known critics, under the direction and control of the government of Saudi Arabia. Insider threats pose a critical threat to American businesses and our national security.”

How Saudi Arabia Recruited the Twitter Insiders

The criminal complaint tells us how the two Twitter employees were spotted.

Abouammo’s role brought him in contact with individuals within the Middle East and North Africa region on behalf of Twitter. He aided high-profile users on how to use the platform effectively. Almutairi worked for a social media firm that had the Saudi Royal Family office as a client. The initial contact was innocuous—a query to be answered by Twitter. Abouammo happened to be the one to which the task of responding was assigned.

Through the course of six months, Abouammo was contacted by individuals representing the Saudi royal court, either directly or via professional engagement (Almutairi), and a face-to-face meeting was arranged as Abouammo attended a Twitter global summit in London in December 2014. At meeting, he was gifted a Hublot watch valued at $25,000 to $30,000.

Within a week of the meeting, Abouammo began accessing Twitter users’ accounts and emails, including that of a prominent critic of the Kingdom who had more than 1 million followers. He continued to access the information and provide reports to the Saudi government representative via email. Abouammo also had a relative open a bank account in Beirut, where he received payments from Saudi Arabia and then disbursed funds to his U.S. account at his own cadence.

The first payment for $100,000 landed in the Beirut bank account in February 2019, two months after the initial face-to-face and many email exchanges (which included information which Abouammo was tasked to provide and actions the Kingdom requested be taken, including suspending user accounts). A few months later, Abouammo quit Twitter, but maintained the operational contact with the Kingdom’s representative. He would over time receive an additional $200,000 from the Saudi representative for his collaboration.

Separately, just before Abouammo departed Twitter, Almutairi made contact with Alzabarah, schmoozing him and puffing up his ego by telling him how special he was to the Kingdom. Indeed, he was invited to Washington, D.C., to meet with the same representative of the Kingdom who had recruited and handled Abouammo. Within a week of Alzabarah returning to San Francisco, he, too, began harvesting Twitter user data.

Over the course of the next six months, Alzabarah’s insider access allowed him to capture the data on 6,000 Twitter users on behalf of the Kingdom, including 33 who were on Saudi watchlists and for whom the Kingdom had formally requested information. Alzabarah would continue to access thousands of Twitter user accounts on behalf of Saudi Arabia from his office in San Francisco, as well as while on vacation to Saudi Arabia.

On or about Dec. 2, 2015, Alzabarah was confronted by Twitter as to why he, an engineer, was accessing account data, specifically account data associated with Saudi Arabia. During the interview, he admitted he had accessed the accounts and attributed his access to curiosity. Twitter seized his laptop, placed him on admin leave and escorted him out of the building.

That very evening Alzabarah lit up the phones of his Saudi contacts (Almutairi, his royal family contact, the consulate in Los Angeles, the embassy in Washington D.C. and others). The next morning, at 7 a.m., Alzabarah and family boarded a flight in San Francisco, connected in Los Angeles and flew to Saudi Arabia. Within one week of his return to Saudi Arabia, Alzabarah became an employee of the representative of the Royal Family. We don’t know the size of his signing bonus, but given that Abouammo received $300,000 plus gifts, one can speculate that Alzabarah received a hefty reward for his inside Twitter assistance in squelching the voice of dissent in Saudi Arabia.

What Happens Next?

If convicted, Abouammo faces 20 years in prison and a 250,000 fine, while Alzabarah and Almutairi face 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Extradition of Alzabarah and Almutairi from Saudi Arabi is highly unlikely.

Twitter adjusted its internal controls in December 2015 to preclude a recurrence of this type of exploitation of its application by an insider in the future.

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#COVIDSOS: India Twitter paints desperate picture of COVID-19 crisis



The Conversation

Early humans used fire to permanently change the landscape tens of thousands of years ago in Stone Age Africa

Today the shoreline of Lake Malawi is open, not forested the way it was before ancient humans started modifying the landscape. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-NDFields of rust-colored soil, spindly cassava, small farms and villages dot the landscape. Dust and smoke blur the mountains visible beyond massive Lake Malawi. Here in tropical Africa, you can’t escape the signs of human presence. How far back in time would you need to go in this place to discover an entirely natural environment? Our work has shown that it would be a very long time indeed – at least 85,000 years, eight times earlier than the world’s first land transformations via agriculture. We are part of an interdisciplinary collaboration between archaeologists who study past human behavior, geochronologists who study the timing of landscape change and paleoenvironmental scientists who study ancient environments. By combining evidence from these research specialities, we have identified an instance in the very distant past of early humans bending environments to suit their needs. In doing so, they transformed the landscape around them in ways still visible today. Crew members excavate artifacts at a site in Karonga, Malawi, where stone tools are buried more than 3 feet (1 meter) below the modern ground surface. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-ND Digging for behavioral and environmental clues The dry season is the best time to do archaeological fieldwork here, and finding sites is easy. Most places we dig in these red soils, we find stone artifacts. They are evidence that someone sat and skillfully broke stones to create edges so sharp they can still draw blood. Many of these stone tools can be fit back together, reconstructing a single action by a single person, from tens of thousands of years ago. Middle Stone Age artifacts, some of which can be fit back together. Sheila Nightingale, CC BY-ND So far we’ve recovered more than 45,000 stone artifacts here, buried many feet (1 to 7 meters) below the surface of the ground. The sites we are excavating date to a time ranging from about 315,000 to 30,000 years ago known as the Middle Stone Age. This was also a period in Africa when innovations in human behavior and creativity pop up frequently – and earlier than anywhere else in the world. How did these artifacts get buried? Why are there so many of them? And what were these ancient hunter-gatherers doing as they made them? To answer these questions, we needed to figure out more about what was happening in this place during their time. The Viphya drill barge on Lake Malawi, where researchers braved waterspouts and lake fly swarms to obtain a long record of past environments. Andy Cohen, CC BY-ND For a clearer picture of the environments where these early humans lived, we turned to the fossil record preserved in layers of mud at the bottom of Lake Malawi. Over millennia, pollen blown into the water and tiny lake-dwelling organisms became trapped in layers of muck on the lake’s floor. Members of our collaborative team extracted a 1,250-foot (380-meter) drill core of mud from a modified barge, then painstakingly tallied the microscopic fossils it contained, layer by layer. They then used them to reconstruct ancient environments across the entire basin. Today, the high plateaus of northern Malawi harbor most of the remaining forests that once extended all the way to the Lake Malawi shoreline. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-ND Today, this region is characterized by bushy, fire-tolerant open woodlands that do not develop a thick and enclosed canopy. Forests that do develop these canopies harbor the richest diversity in vegetation; this ecosystem is now restricted to patches that occur at higher elevations. But these forests once stretched all the way to the lakeshore. Based on the fossil plant evidence present at various times in the drill cores, we could see that the area around Lake Malawi repeatedly alternated between wet times of forest expansion and dry periods of forest contraction. As the area underwent cycles of aridity, driven by natural climate change, the lake shrank at times to only 5% of its present volume. When lake levels eventually rose each time, forests encroached on the shoreline. This happened time and time again over the last 636,000 years. Harnessing fire to manage resources The mud in the core also contains a record of fire history, in the form of tiny fragments of charcoal. Those little flecks told us that around 85,000 years ago, something strange happened around Lake Malawi. Charcoal production spiked, erosion increased and, for the first time in more than half a million years, rainfall did not bring forest recovery. At the same time this charcoal burst appears in the drill core record, our sites began to show up in the archaeological record – eventually becoming so numerous that they formed one continuous landscape littered with stone tools. Another drill core immediately offshore showed that as site numbers increased, more and more charcoal was washing into the lake. Early humans had begun to make their first permanent mark on the landscape. Many people around the world still rely on fire for warmth, cooking, ritual and socializing – including the research crew when doing fieldwork. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-ND Fire use is a technology that stretches back at least a million years. Using it in such a transformative way is human innovation at its most powerful. Modern hunter-gatherers use fire to warm themselves, cook food and socialize, but many also deploy it as an engineering tool. Based on the wide-scale and permanent transformation of vegetation into more fire-tolerant woodlands, we infer that this was what these ancient hunter-gatherers were doing. By converting the natural seasonal rhythm of wildfire into something more controlled, people can encourage specific areas of vegetation to grow at different stages. This so-called “pyrodiversity” establishes miniature habitat patches and diversifies opportunities for foraging, kind of like increasing product selection at a supermarket. The research team exposes ancient stone tools near Karonga, Malawi. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-ND Just like today, changing any part of an ecosystem has consequences everywhere else. With the loss of closed forests in ancient Malawi, the vegetation became dominated by more open woodlands that are resilient to fire – but these did not contain the same species diversity. This combination of rainfall and reduced tree cover also increased opportunities for erosion, which spread sediments into a thick blanket known as an alluvial fan. It sealed away archaeological sites and created the landscape you can see here today. Human impacts can be sustainable Although the spread of farmers through Africa within the last few thousand years brought about more landscape and vegetation transformations, we have found that the legacy of human impacts was already in place tens of thousands of years before. This offers a chance to understand how such impacts can be sustained over very long timescales. Open woodlands have grown over alluvial fans that formed during the Middle Stone Age. Trenches such as this one at an excavation site show multiple layers of discarded artifacts over a period of tens of thousands of years. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-ND Most people associate human impacts with a time after the Industrial Revolution, but paleo-scientists have a deeper perspective. With it, researchers like us can see that wherever and whenever humans lived, we must abandon the idea of “pristine nature,” untouched by any human imprint. However, we can also see how humans shaped their environments in sustainable ways over very long periods, causing ecosystem transformation without collapse. Seeing the long arc of human influence therefore gives us much to consider about not only our past, but also our future. By establishing long-term ecological patterns, conservation efforts related to fire control, species protection and human food security can be more targeted and effective. People living in the tropics, such as Malawi today, are especially vulnerable to the economic and social impacts of food insecurity brought about by climate change. By studying the deep past, we can establish connections between long-term human presence and the biodiversity that sustains it. With this knowledge, people can be better equipped to do what humans had already innovated nearly 100,000 years ago in Africa: manage the world around us. [The Conversation’s newsletter explains what’s going on with the coronavirus pandemic. Subscribe now.]This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Jessica Thompson, Yale University; David K. Wright, University of Oslo, and Sarah Ivory, Penn State. Read more:Turbulent environment set the stage for leaps in human evolution and technology 320,000 years agoAncient leaves preserved under a mile of Greenland’s ice – and lost in a freezer for years – hold lessons about climate change Jessica Thompson has received funding for this research from the Australian Research Council, Wenner-Gren Foundation, and National Geographic Society-Waitt Foundation. She is affiliated with Yale University and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Arizona State University, the Paleoanthropology Society, the Society of Africanist Archaeologists, and the Society for American Archaeology. David K. Wright has received funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, National Geographic Foundation, Nordforsk (Nordic Council of Ministers) fund and the National Research Foundation of Korea. He is affiliated with the University of Oslo and the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and is a member of the Society for American Archaeology and the Society of Africanist Archaeologists.Sarah Ivory receives funding from the US National Science Foundation and the Belmont Forum.

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Twitter banter ignites a focused Phil Mickelson as he takes Wells Fargo lead



<b>Twitter</b> banter ignites a focused Phil Mickelson as he takes Wells Fargo lead thumbnail

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Joel Dahmen poked the bear.

In a friendly Twitter exchange on Wednesday night, Dahmen, a winner of one PGA Tour event, ended his back and forth with World Golf Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson by writing, “I’m excited to see how my game stacks up against the best of the @ChampionsTour.”

Well, Mickelson, 50, who has won twice on the PGA Tour Champions, flexed his PGA Tour muscles playing alongside Dahmen on Thursday and fired a 7-under-par 64 to take the lead through one round of the Wells Fargo Championship at sunlit Quail Hollow.

Mickelson, a winner of 44 PGA Tour titles, including five major championships, made a lone bogey as he bested his finest round of the season by three shots. It was clearly Mickelson’s best showing in 2021; he’s missed four cuts in nine worldwide starts and his best result was a tie for 21st in the Masters.

He has not won since the 2019 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

Wells Fargo: Leaderboard | Photos | Friday tee times, TV info

“I love the banter. I think it’s funny and it kept the atmosphere in our group really light,” Mickelson said. “We laughed a bunch. We had some fun things to talk about, but we were laughing even before we teed off.

“I like how he’s able to laugh at himself and have fun with the game of golf and not take it too seriously. Lanto (Griffin) is the same way, so we had a really fun group.”

Mickelson is two clear of the field. K.H. Lee took the early clubhouse lead with a 66 and was joined there late in the day by Keegan Bradley, who finished second last week in the Valspar Championship. A large group at 67 included Tommy Fleetwood and Gary Woodland.

Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy, each playing for the first time since the Masters, turned in scores of 70 and 72, respectively.

Mickelson birdied five of six holes in one stretch. His iron play was spot on, but it was a 2-wood – a 11.5-degree 2-wood head he’s using as his 3-wood – that had him excited. But he was most pleased with his attention span.

“Just focus,” Mickelson said about the difference from Thursday and last week’s missed cut in the Valspar Championship. “I’m just present on each shot. This course holds my attention. I’ve been doing some mental exercises and so forth just to try to get my focus to elongate over five hours and so forth.

Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson putts for a birdie on 18 during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

“That’s been a real struggle for me the last few years because physically, there’s nothing physically holding me back from playing at a high level, but you cannot make mistakes at this level. The guys out here are just so good, and I’ve been making a lot of errors, just simply not being mentally sharp.”

As for the “mini driver head” for his 3-wood, as he called it, Mickelson said is allows him to control the ball much better without sacrificing distance.

“Because the fairways are so firm, if I hit it low enough, I’m able to get a lot of chase out of it,” he said. “So that allows me to kind of keep my misses a lot tighter. Today I hit it very successful, I hit a lot of good shots with it. My misses that I did miss weren’t as far offline and I was able to salvage pars.

“But that club has allowed me to kind of get it in play and then let my irons take over. My irons have always been the strength of my game, I just haven’t been able to use them enough. But that club’s working really well around here.”

Mickelson has done some really fine work around Quail Hollow despite not winning here. In 16 starts, he has 10 top-10s – eight of them top-5s – and signed for just 13 rounds over par in 65 played. His 64 Thursday fell one shot shy of his best score here – a 63 in the third round in 2014.

“The course has a great mixture of holes – great birdie opportunities and some really tough holes. That keeps my attention,” he said.

Dahmen played really well around Quail Hollow, too. Playing for the first time with Mickelson – Dahmen called it a bucket list item – he shot 68. Watching Mickelson play impressed him just as much if not more.

Lesson learned 😏

— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) May 6, 2021

“Phil’s awesome. He’s a great guy,” Dahmen said. “He’s just so full of information, would be the way to put it. He’s got great stories. He’s really fun to play with. So I poked him a little bit and he played awesome today. It was incredible.

“We got in some dopamine talk, frontal lobe and dopamine, and then the units of it, which I was actually impressed with. Then he hit a 6‑iron to three feet, so he must have had his dopamine correct on that one.”

He had whatever was working correctly on a lot of iron shots.

“The iron play today was incredible,” Dahmen said. “I don’t know what the stats are going to show, but he hit so many great shots inside of what seemed like six feet, and obviously he can chip it and pitch it unbelievably, and he made all his putts today. He has this new 2‑wood thing. He was kind of hitting his dink cut, he was calling it, past my driver all day and that’s impressive.

“If he plays like this, he can play anywhere at any time against anybody.”

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Users went from loving to hating Twitter’s reduced image crops in 24 hours. Because it’s Twitter



Users went from loving to hating <b>Twitter's</b> reduced image crops in 24 hours. Because it's <b>Twitter</b> thumbnail

I know it’s shocking to hear, but people are dissatisfied on Twitter—and they’re letting everyone on the service know it. This latest round of dissatisfaction isn’t about the state of the world or politicians or anything of the like—it’s about Twitter itself. Or, specifically, a change Twitter introduced last night that many users had been asking for for years.

Last night the company announced that it was finally expanding the crop of images users on iPhones and Android devices see in their feed. This crop traditionally cut off a significant portion of an image a user posted in a tweet, meaning Twitter users had to stop scrolling and tap the image in order to see most of what was in it.

With the new reduced crop change, users can now keep scrolling through their feed without having to stop and tap to see an image in all its full glory. And as you would expect, at first Twitter users loved this.

However, by the morning after, the tone on Twitter changed. Many were now dissatisfied with Twitter’s crop changes because it ruined a specific type of tweet many on the platform enjoyed: the “open for surprise” tweet.

The “open for surprise” tweet relied on Twitter’s aggressive cropping of photos. This aggressive cropping meant you couldn’t see the main (sometimes funny or shocking) subject of a photo until you tapped to open it fully. For example:

But now that Twitter’s reduced image crop shows a majority of the photo without the need to tap to expand it, the era of “open for surprise” tweets are over (at least on mobile—but Twitter says reduced crops will soon come to the web as well). And that doesn’t sit well with many Twitter users.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that you can’t please everyone on Twitter, which means Twitter, the company, can never fully win no matter what changes or improvements it decides to implement.

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