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The Twitter Spy Scandal: Context, Parallels, Threats and Responsibilities

The shocking facts revealed in the ‘Twitter spy scandal’ raise several questions regarding the nature of social media as a double-edged sword, one that can be used as a tool for both liberation and repression.[1] Importantly, evidence in this complex case also raises red flags surrounding issues of data governance, internet freedom, and foreign governments’ exploitation of social media’s vast databases.[2] Within the broader context of the Gulf region, this latest infraction against personal liberties resonates with several recent controversies that have embroiled some Gulf states.

This most recent scandal surfaced when two former Twitter employees were charged by the Justice Department with spying on behalf of the government of Saudi Arabia.[3] While at Twitter, they were able to browse the records of thousands of users in order to identify opponents and critics of the Kingdom. Some accounts discovered by the two spies had been of those tweeting using aliases and pseudonyms, a measure is taken to protect their identities, ensure their personal safety, and avoid state retaliation. A third person was also accused of acting as the liaison between some Saudi officials and the two former Twitter employees facilitating this unlawful data breach.[4]

The significance of this story is gained in that associates of an Arab Gulf state were able to successfully exploit their positions as Twitter employees to access large databases and obtain personal information belonging to some government critics. As a Human Rights Watch researcher puts it, Twitter is the “de facto public space of Saudi Arabia.”[5] In other words, social media is the venue where Saudi citizens, as well as citizens for most Arab states come together to discuss issues they otherwise have no place or space to discuss. However, according to the same researcher, it also became “A space in which the Saudi authorities have used various means to curtail critical voices, including by seeking to unmask anonymous accounts.” This has exposed social media as an insecure place for critics of Arab rulers, and it could be used by other Arab governments to collect information on dissidents and possibly target them. In addition to the complex context through which this scandal came to fruition, through a mixture of bribery, corruption, and exploitation, there are also interesting, yet troubling, parallels and connections to other recent incidents.

There are three aspects connecting this Twitter scandal to recent controversies involving Saudi Arabia, including the widely publicized death of Saudi critic and prominent Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The first connection surfaced when one of the individuals named in the Twitter scandal’s court documents appeared to be an associate of Saudi officials whom the CIA has concluded with a high degree of confidence likely ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.[6][7]

The second connection is that one of the former Twitter employees was accused of accessing the personal data of over 6,000 Twitter accounts on behalf of Saudi Arabia. One of those accounts belonged to prominent dissident and Saudi critic, Omar Abdulaziz, who developed a close friendship with Jamal Khashoggi and previously declared his commitment to complete the journey started by his friend.[8][9]

Finally, the events are connected by the fact that both incidents involved an attempt on the part of the Saudi government to silence critics, whether through the suppressing of their voices online or, more tragically, by silencing them forever.

Foreign Governments’ Intervention and Data Breach

Given that the Twitter spy scandal exposes the danger of a foreign power exploiting American social media platforms to identify critics and suppress their voices, a parallel could be drawn with the Russian interference in the last presidential elections in the United States. The parallels emerge in that they took place mostly online through mastering cyberspace tactics and techniques, including hacking.[10]

When the American public first heard about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections, many simply shrugged it off as unbelievable and dismissed it as unrealistic. However, as more evidence started to pile up and fingers of blame began pointing at different players directly or indirectly connected to the Russian government and associated with it in different capacities, many Americans started to realize the shocking and inconvenient truth.

Although not involving the overreach of a sovereign nation, there are also parallels between this most recent Saudi case and the data breach scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, in which the personal data and private information of a large number of Facebook users were leaked.[11] This naturally raised alarm regarding the dangers of an invasion of privacy and threats to online data security, shaking confidence in social media platforms, and shattering their credibility in the eyes of many users.

Common Threats and Shared Responsibilities

The widespread penetration of social media platforms and our increasing reliance on them in many personal, professional, social, and political aspects of life evidences the precarity that the personal data of internet users can fall into the wrong hands.

In an era where cyberwars between governments and their opponents are constantly escalating, terrifying incidents such as the Twitter spy scandal signal real dangers and serious threats to the lives of those who dare to speak up against governments with which they disagree.[12][13] The only way to combat such threats in the future is by maximizing the involvement of Silicon Valley and governments.

The responsibility of the social media industry is now in question, as such incidents certainly raise concerns about Silicon Valley’s ability to protect the private information of its users in general, and in particular the dissidents and opponents of repressive governments. The challenge now facing social media companies is in developing mechanisms to keep their data secure, not only from hackers but also from rogue employees.[14]

It is essential for social media giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, to come up with new policies that determine who can and cannot have access to their databases.[15] Additionally, they must draft clear rules and regulations ensuring the safety and protection of this data from manipulation, whether by foreign governments and other entities or by their own staff and insiders.

This is the only way through which they can maintain their professionalism and restore their credibility in the eyes of users, many of whom are starting to question how safe and secure their personal information is when shared in cyberspace. In order to ensure high levels of accountability on the part of social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, it is becoming more important than ever to enforce legal punishment against transgressors and those who are implicated in such attempts. Most importantly, rather than turning a blind eye to transgressions, there is also a need to hold foreign governments accountable for their actions.

Here, it is worth mentioning that a ruling by an American judge granting a bond to one of the former Twitter employees accused of spying in this incident was stayed after U.S. prosecutors said they appealed the decision.[16] This is certainly a move in the right direction. However, more legal enforcement efforts need to be put in place to deter others from repeating similar offenses in the future. Additionally, more responsible practices in Silicon Valley must be enacted to simultaneously prevent meddling and interference on the part of foreign governments.

It is the hope that if these parties take their responsibilities more seriously and effectively moving forward, similar scandals can be avoided and prevented.

 

Dr. Sahar Khamis is an expert on Arab and Muslim media and Associate Professor at the Department of Communicaion, UNiversity of Maryland

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Reference:

[1] Cynthia Brumfield, “Twitter Spy Scandal a Wake-Up Call For Companies to Clean up their Data Access Acts,” CSO, November 12, 2019.

[2] “Data Governance: Definition, Challenges & Best Practices,” BI-Survey.com,

[3] Ellen Nakashima and Greg Bensinger, “Former Twitter Employees Charged With Spying for Saudi Arabia by Digging Into the Accounts of the Kingdom’s Critics,” The Washington Post, November 6, 2019.

[4] “Ex-Twitter Employees Accused of Spying for Saudi Arabia,” BBC, November 7, 2019.

[5] “Two Ex-Twitter Employees Charged With Spying for Saudi Arabia,” Bloomberg, November 7, 2019.

[6] Shane Harris, Greg Miller and Josh Dawsey, “CIA Concludes Saudi Crown Prince Ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s Assasination,” Washington Post, November 16, 2018.

[7] Elisabeth Myers, “One Year On, Khashoggi’s Dream Lives On,” Inside Arabia, October 2, 2019.

[8] Loveday Morris, “Secret Recordings Give Insight Into Saudi Attempts to Silence Critics,” The Washington Post, October 17, 2018.

[9] Matthew Braga, “A Quebecer Spoke Out Against the Saudis – Then Learned He Had Spyware on his Iphone,” CBC News, October 1, 2018.

[10] “2016 Presidential Campaign Hacking Fast-Facts,” CNN¸ October 31, 2019.

[11] “How Cambridge Analytica Exploited Facebook Users’ Data, and Why it’s a Big Deal,” South China Morning Post, March 28, 2018.

[12] Mohammed El-Nawawy and Sahar Khamis, “Political Activism 2.0: Comparing the Role of Social Media in Egypt’s ‘Facebook Revolution’ and Iran’s ‘Twitter Uprising,’ CyberOrient 6, no. 1, 2012.

[13] Dania Akkad, “Twitter’s Saudi Spy Network Leaves Activists Living in Fear,” Middle East Eye, November 18, 2019.

[14] “Twitter Spy Case Shines Spotlight on Rogue Staff,” South China Morning Post, November 9, 2019.

[15] Kaitlyn Tiffany, “A Timeline of High-Profile Tech Apologies,” Vox, July 26, 2019.

[16] Eric M. Johnson, “Bond Stayed For Ex-Twitter Employee Accused of Spying for Saudi Arabia,” Reuters, November 8, 2019.