A federal jury this week in San Francisco convicted Ahmad Abouammo, 44, who managed partnerships in the Middle East and Africa for Twitter, of six charges related to accusations that he spied on the company’s users for Saudi Arabia. During the two years that Abouammo worked for Twitter, he developed close relationships with advisors close to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The deal? The jury found that Abouammo sold private information and data about dissident accounts to the Saudi government in exchange for bribes that included luxury watches and $300,000 in cash.
This case highlights just one way in which the political, financial, health, and personal information of Americans is at enormous risk of falling into the hands of foreign governments, as well as our own government.
Abouammo, who worked at Twitter from 2013 to 2015, wasn’t arrested until 2019. Another former Twitter employee who was also charged in the scheme fled the country before he could be arrested. This human intelligence approach to spying, however, may be dwarfed by the scale of corporate infiltration and commercial surveillance by governments.
China leads the pack in deploying the most sophisticated methods to infiltrate U.S. companies, capabilities recently described by FBI Director Christopher Wray:
"China often disguises its hand in order to obtain influence and access where companies don’t suspect it. Outside of China, their government uses elaborate shell games to disguise its efforts from foreign companies and from government investment-screening programs like CFIUS, America’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.”
Foreign infiltration operations are not the only way in which Americans’ personal data is hemorrhaging. Even if the U.S. government and companies could effectively catch spies and corporate infiltrators, countries around the globe might legally circumvent the FBI by simply buying our data from data brokers. “The present risks of our citizens’ data being sold to foreign governments are grossly underappreciated,” wrote Klon Kitchen and Bill Drexel at the American Enterprise Institute.
As PPSA has previously reported, data brokers gather a trove of highly personal data about you and sell it to interested parties. Even if the U.S. can enact effective reforms to stop foreign infiltration, governments, including our own, can simply purchase our data.
It is more important than ever that Congress and American businesses tackle the many threats to data privacy. As Congress debates a privacy bill, the scope of foreign government purchases of our information – perhaps through shell companies – should be the subject of deep inquiry. Addressing this vulnerability will require a lot of study by the relevant Congressional committees and social media companies to ensure that any proposed solution works without unintended consequences.
In the meantime, there is one gap that can be closed immediately – the warrantless access of Americans’ personal information by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, in defiance of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.