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Twitter Blamed for Saudi Spy Hack of Activist Tied to Khashoggi

Robert Burnson

(Bloomberg) -- A Saudi dissident sued Twitter Inc. claiming its failure to tell him about a state-sponsored hack of his account led to government agents discovering his plans for a social media protest with Jamal Khashoggi a few months before the journalist was slain last year.

Omar Abdulaziz claims a Twitter employee, a Saudi national, was recruited by the government to gain access to his account and gather intelligence on him.

Twitter found out about the activities of the employee, Ali Al-Zabarah, fired him in 2015 and later notified a few dozen users of the platform that their accounts “may have been targeted by state-sponsored actors,” Abdulaziz said in the complaint.

But Abdulaziz says he wasn’t notified. All he got a few months later was an email saying that due to a bug “the email address and phone number linked to your account was viewed by another account,” according to the complaint, which included the email from Twitter.

In June 2018, Saudi agents planted malware on Abdulaziz’s phone, which allowed them to spy on his activities, he alleges. At the time, he and Khashoggi, who worked for the Washington Post, were planning the “electronic bees” project, which organized Saudi activists on Twitter to counter the government’s so-called “electronic flies” campaign.

Read More: Israeli Spyware May Have Helped Khashoggi Killers, Snowden Says

Abdulaziz, who had won political asylum in Canada, where he was attending college, said Saudi agents stepped up their harassment of him in July 2018 and arrested his brothers in Jeddah. The agents asked him to meet at the Saudi embassy in Ottawa. He declined. A few months later, Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.

Subsequently, the fired Twitter employee was appointed by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to be the chief executive officer of a multibillion-MISK foundation, according to the complaint.

Abdulaziz said his brothers are still in prison in Saudi Arabia without having been charged and have been tortured to pressure Abdulaziz to stop his activism.

McKinsey & Co., also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, is faulted for writing a report that identified Abdulaziz as one of the top three activists protesting human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

Read More: How Despots Use Twitter to Hunt Dissidents

Twitter and McKinsey “have individually invaded plaintiff’s privacy and exposed him, his family members, friends and political associates to imprisonment, torture, and even death,” Abdulaziz said in the complaint.

Much of the narrative in the complaint was reported a year ago in the New York Times.

Representatives of Twitter and McKinsey didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. McKinsey told the Times last year that the report was an internal document based on publicly available information and wasn’t prepared for any government entity. The firm was quoted saying it was “horrified” that the report could have been misused.

The case is Abdulaziz v. Twitter Inc., 19-cv-06694, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Burnson in San Francisco at rburnson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: David Glovin at dglovin@bloomberg.net, Peter Blumberg, Joe Schneider

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