The New York Times published a report detailing Saudi Arabia’s endeavors to battle dissent on platforms like Twitter, for example, US journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was subjected to serious and personal assaults online before his death. As a major aspect of those endeavors, the country allegedly attempted to groom a Twitter employee to keep an eye on user accounts.
As indicated by the Times, western intelligence authorities contacted the online networking organization, saying that the Saudi government was “grooming” one of its representatives, Ali Alzabarah, “to keep an eye on the records of protesters and others.” Alzabarah worked at the Twitter starting in 2013 as an engineer with access to client accounts and was persuaded by Saudi intelligence authorities to access a few records.
Once alarmed, Twitter supposedly set Alzabarah on managerial leave while an investigation took place, and keeping in mind that “they couldn’t find proof that he had given over Twitter data to the Saudi government,” he was dismissed by the end of 2015. The organization, at that point, notified a “couple of accounts” that they may have been targeted. Following his dismissal, Alzabarah came back to Saudi Arabia.
When asked to comment on the same subject matter, a Twitter spokesperson said that the organization “nothing to include as of now.” The Times says that among the records that were notified belonged to security specialists, academics, and writers, including people who worked for the Tor project. Preceding his death, Khashoggi was working on launching a project intended to battle online abuse.
The report doesn’t state if Khashoggi’s record was one of the ones seen by Alzabarah, yet it says that he had been subjected to assaults from the troll farms set up by the Saudi government to silence critics. The group was driven by one of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s counselors, Saud al-Qahtani, who was dismissed from his post after the country conceded that Khashoggi had been killed in the Saudi’s Turkish office.
As per the Times, the gathering used group chats in messaging applications to distribute lists of individuals to harass, topics to monitor and to issue pro-government messaging over different sock-puppet accounts. The group highlighted topics like the war in Yemen and woman’s rights in the nation, mass-detailing tweets to inspire Twitter to hide tweets by the individuals they were targeting.
On Thursday, NBC News reported that Twitter suspended a botnet account that was used to push out pro-Saudi propaganda in the wake of Khashoggi’s demise, and that this specific network, made somewhere in between 2011 and 2017, used sophisticated strategies to stay away from identification after the company implemented new rules to battle the use of such automated accounts.