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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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Twitter Adds Support for iPhone’s Live Photos, Will Now Preserve Image Quality for Uploads on Web



Twitter announced earlier this year that it is planning on adding support for Apple’s Live Photos feature on iOS devices while everyone was looking for a simple edit button for tweets. Now, four years after Apple launched the feature on iOS devices, Twitter has added support for Live Photos. The social networking giant announced the new feature for iPhone users on Wednesday. Live Photos will be converted to GIFs when they’re shared on Twitter.

Apple’s Live Photos feature lets iOS users capture very short videos while taking a photo. Users who tried to share Live Photos on Twitter, until now, would end up with a still photo. Users could convert their Live Photos to GIF using a third-party app and then share them on Twitter.

Twitter’s support for Live Photos will now eliminate the need for using a third-party application. Users can directly share their Live Photos and they’ll be automatically converted to GIFs.

To use the new feature, Twitter users need to use the company’s iOS app. While posting a new tweet, users can select a Live Photo from their camera roll, select the GIF button on the left corner of the compose window, add relevant text, and that’s it.

Separately, Twitter will now preserve JPEG image quality for all photo uploads on Twitter for Web. The social networking company will still compress the thumbnails that users see on their timeline. However, when users click on the thumbnail to see the full image, it’ll be presented in high resolution. Twitter engineer Nolan O’Brien announced via a tweet. The company will still strip EXIF data from the images.

O’Brien further clarified that the company will continue to impose limits for images, but those will remain ‘very generous’. He says users will be able to share images up to 16-megapixels which will be preserved in original quality.


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China’s Foreign Ministry adopts a Trumpian tone on its new Twitter account — with insults, typos …



If you live in China, chances are you aren’t on Twitter — the American tech giant has been blocked by Beijing’s Great Firewall for more than a decade.

But for Chinese diplomats, that doesn’t mean Twitter can’t be a tool to spread their message in the West. And perhaps there’s no need to stay diplomatic on it either.

Late Monday evening in Beijing, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began tweeting under the handle “MFA_China” and the bio: “Follow us to know more about China’s Diplomacy.”

Just a few days later, it has already made an impact. Although most of the tweets simply share video footage of spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s news conferences, the English text on the tweets often takes a combative, even Trumpian tone.

“Big guy NOT NECESSARILY threat. Unilateralism & hegemony IS,” the account wrote on Thursday, criticizing comments at a NATO summit in London about China.

Another tweet Thursday warned sardonically with an emoji that if the West thinks Chinese tech companies could be a threat, it should worry about clothes and shoes, too.

In earlier tweets, the ministry had written “LOL!” when talking about U.S. investment in China, called the United States a “moral loner” and shared an image of a ballet dancer’s battered foot in apparent criticism of the Canadian detention of Meng Wanzhou of Huawei.

A tweet on Wednesday had suggested that the United States should not criticize China’s harsh treatment of the Uighur minority because of “native Indians’ tears & blood.”

“China’s ethnic policy is more successful!” the tweet said.

Forget native Indians’ tears&blood? US politicians like @SpeakerPelosi so ignorant&hypocritical to talk about “conscience”. Ethnic minorities in China enjoy equal rights and freedom in religion and culture. China’s ethnic policy is more successful!

— Spokesperson发言人办公室 (@MFA_China) December 4, 2019

This is far from China’s first foray into English-language social media — Chinese-state-linked entities such as the Global Times and Xinhua have long used Western companies to spread messages that needled Western governments.

But there appears to have been a shift in how Chinese diplomats approach Twitter recently.

Notably, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese diplomat who pioneered combative English-language messages earlier this year, has been promoted to deputy director general of the ministry’s information department.

In July, as China faced international criticism for its crackdown on Uighurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region, Zhao tweeted a variety of criticism of the United States — highlighting alleged religious intolerance, gun violence, Internet surveillance, income inequality and more.

Zhao, who was at that moment deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, took specific aim at the U.S. capital, arguing that white residents of Washington would never go to Southwest Washington because of racial segregation.

The tweet prompted an argument with Susan E. Rice, who was national security adviser in the Obama administration. Rice dubbed Zhao a “racist disgrace.” The Chinese diplomat responded with his own insult, saying that it was Rice who is a “disgrace” and that the “truth hurts.”

Zhao later said he meant Southeast Washington, deleted both tweets and shortly afterward returned to Beijing, but he was not demoted — he was promoted. He has continued to tweet frequently upon his return to China, using his 220,000 followers to promote pro-China messages and troll the United States.

Out of respect for President Trump, US & its people, on the occasion of thanksgiving day, I pay special thanks to US for squandering trillions of dollars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria…

— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) November 29, 2019

In interviews, Zhao has said that China needed to take to Twitter to combat U.S. influence on the platform.

But whereas Trump and other U.S. officials tweet in English to a largely domestic audience, China’s Foreign Ministry appears to be targeting international audiences with a sometimes crude message. Here it may be emulating not the U.S. president, but Russian diplomats who have used embassy Twitter accounts to mock and belittle Western democracies.

However, changing international attitudes via tweet may be an uphill battle for China. A Pew Research Center survey of 34 countries released on Thursday found considerable negative sentiment toward China worldwide, with unfavorable views of the country increasing sharply in the United States and Canada in 2019.

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Social Network Marketing Market Latest Trends, Demand and Industry Outlook, Forecast 2025




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