Enlarge /. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO / POOL / AFP via Getty Images
The sister of a Saudi dissident told Bloomberg that a breach by two Twitter employees in 2015 allowed the Saudi government to expose several anonymous Twitter accounts whose tweets criticized the regime. The US federal government tried the two rogue employees last November.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan is a US-educated Saudi man who worked for the Red Crescent Movement – the Muslim world's counterpart to the Red Cross. He also secretly ran a popular pseudonymous Twitter account with thousands of followers. The report criticized the Saudi government.
"It is clear that this was a targeted attack on activists and critics on Twitter," said Areej al-Sadhan, Abdulrahman's sister. “Unfortunately, my brother is one of those targeted.
According to Bloomberg, al-Sadhan was working in his Riyadh office when he was taken into custody by the Saudi Arabian secret police. His family has not seen him since. They feared he would be dead for almost two years by the time he was allowed to use the phone in February.
The fraudulent Twitter workers allegedly accessed sensitive information on at least 6,000 Twitter accounts on behalf of the Saudi government. Human rights activists believe the hacks enabled the Saudi authorities to arrest at least five people who operated pseudonymous, dissident Twitter accounts.
"Saudi Arabia spends millions of dollars on digital espionage and hacked the accounts of human rights defenders, critics and opponents," said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Egypt-based Arab human rights intelligence network.
The Saudi government has long warned Saudis not to use anonymity as a shield when criticizing the government, Bloomberg explains:
In August 2017, one of the then closest advisors to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, warned against anonymous Twitter accounts via his own verified Twitter account: "Does a pseudonym protect you from the #blacklist?" al-Qahtani wrote. "No."
Al-Qahtani said that governments could find out the real identities of people using Twitter anonymously. He mentioned "technical possibilities" for tracking people's IP addresses and a "secret I won't tell".
Al-Qahtani has since been suspended from Twitter. He lost his government post after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
The Saudis have been accused of targeting people outside of Saudi Arabia as well. Dissidents in the US and Canada have sued Twitter over the 2015 violation, arguing that they should be warned about the Saudis targeting their accounts. In an unrelated incident last year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accused the Saudi government of hacking his phone and receiving racy photos that ended up in the hands of the National Enquirer.