Two former employees of Twitter Inc and a third man from Saudi Arabia face US charges of spying for the kingdom by digging up private user data and giving it to Saudi officials in exchange for payment, according to a complaint filed on Wednesday.
Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, who used to work for Twitter, and Ahmed Almutairi, who then worked for the Saudi royal family, face charges of working for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia without registering as foreign agents, according to a complaint filed against them.
According to the complaint, Abouammo repeatedly accessed the Twitter account of a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family in early 2015. In one instance, he was able to view the email address and telephone number associated with the account. He also accessed the account of a second Saudi critic to get personally identifiable information.
"This information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts," the Justice Department said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in confronting Iran, has faced intense Western criticism over its human rights record, including over last year's murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its involvement in the devastating war in Yemen.
Almutairi, for his part, is accused of acting as a go-between for the Saudi government and the Twitter employees.
Abouammo was arrested in Seattle, Washington while the other two are in Saudi Arabia, the department said.
Abouammo was ordered to remain behind bars by a US magistrate judge on Wednesday pending a detention hearing set for Friday. The US Attorney's Office said in a court filing it wants Abouammo detained pending trial because of a "serious risk" of flight.
The two men were given cash and other rewards, such as an expensive watch, for the information, the complaint said.
The Saudi embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Twitter said that it was grateful to the FBI and US Justice Department. "We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service," it said in a statement. "We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable."