DOJ Charges 2 Former Twitter Employees With Spying For Saudi Arabia
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Two former Twitter employees have been charged with spying for Saudi Arabia. The Justice Department alleges that they used their access at Twitter to get private information about critics of the Saudi government. This not only raises serious questions about tech companies' ability to protect users' privacy, but Greg Bensinger with The Washington Post reports that this is the first time federal prosecutors have publicly accused Saudi Arabia of running agents in the U.S.
Greg Bensinger joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.
GREG BENSINGER: Thank you.
MARTIN: What do we know about these former Twitter employees and their connections to the Saudi kingdom?
BENSINGER: Well, we know there were two of them. They worked for Twitter, starting about five years ago, their work for the royal family in Saudi Arabia. And essentially, they were groomed and requested to look into accounts of critics of the Saudi government and the royal family. And ultimately, they accessed, between the two of them, thousands of accounts during their time at Twitter looking at personal information, like email addresses, names, phone numbers and the particular IP addresses, things they could identify - where these Twitter accounts were working from and tweeting from.
MARTIN: And one of these former employees is a U.S. citizen, right?
BENSINGER: That's right. That was who was arrested on Wednesday in Seattle. And so he's in custody. The other two, one of them acted as an intermediary for the royal family, and the other was the other Twitter employee. They're both presumed to be back in Saudi Arabia and unlikely to be arrested as a result.
MARTIN: So I mean, we're talking about personal information - addresses. I mean, do we know the extent of the information?
BENSINGER: We don't know all of it. But look, these tech companies accrue a tremendous amount of information about each of us. And you can imagine that just having the IP address - that's the sort of unique identifier that says where you're tweeting from - that alone is pretty valuable information if you want to know who is tweeting about you and who's criticizing you. And so there's real implications here.
MARTIN: I mean, it's hard to have a conversation about Saudi Arabia and allegedly cracking down on critics without bringing up the name Jamal Khashoggi, right?
BENSINGER: Absolutely. And there are a lot of parallels here. We don't know the full extent of what Saudi Arabia did as a result of the information it got. But you're right. It raises the specter of something sort of very serious and gruesome, like the Khashoggi case.
MARTIN: And just a reminder, it was Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Arabia, who wrote for The Washington Post. And Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is alleged to have some direct connection to one of these former employees?
BENSINGER: That's right. The complaint indicates that it was at his direction that this espionage was conducted. So he had an intermediary who found these two employees who were willing to do this work. I would note that one of them, the man who was arrested, was paid significantly for his efforts. He received $300,000 and a very nice watch during his time at Twitter. And afterwards, he continued looking into accounts and trying to reach out to Twitter employees to help him. So this was pretty important to them.
MARTIN: Right. The crown prince, a very close ally of the Trump administration and President Trump. I mean, what's been the response to this? Are the Saudis responding to this? Is the U.S. government? Is Twitter?
BENSINGER: Well, you know, Twitter has said that they've limited the ways that people can access this private information. And, you know, as far as the rest of them, it's been pretty quiet, other than the complaint itself.
MARTIN: All right. Washington Post reporter Greg Bensinger. We reached him on Skype. Thank you so much for sharing your reporting on. This we appreciate it.
BENSINGER: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.