LONDON (Middle East Eye) -- Saudi activists fear they are among thousands of Twitter users whose data is thought to have been obtained by the Saudi government via spies inside the social media giant.
Several have told Middle East Eye that they fear the information, including IP addresses, may have been used to target and arrest activists who have subsequently disappeared.
Earlier this month, a complaint filed by the U.S. government in a California federal court accused two Twitter employees of accessing and giving the details of more than 6,000 users to a Saudi official with close ties to the royal family, between December 2014 and November 2015.
Two of the users whose information was believed to have been shared are Mujtahidd, an anonymous account once described as "the Saudi version of Wikileaks”, and Omar Abdulaziz, a dissident living in Canada, who has filed his own lawsuit against Twitter.
But the identity of the remaining users is unknown – at least to Saudi activists who say the scale of the spying detailed in the complaints took their community, already on high alert in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder last year, by surprise.
"I think we always thought it would be the big wigs, but after realising ‘Oh, it’s 6,000 accounts’, even other activists have asked me, ‘Hey, do any of you know if any of us are on this list?,” Amani al-Ahmadi, a Saudi-American feminist based in Seattle, told MEE.
Ali al-Ahmad, a Washington-based Saudi dissident and head of the U.S.-based Institute for Persian Gulf Affairs, said he is certain he was on the list.
"Look, if there are 6,000 people who have been targeted, I don’t think my name will not be in that 6,000 people. I am a major critic. I’ve definitely been a target,” he said.
Twitter sent a message to several dozens users in December 2015, saying that their accounts were among a small group that might have been targeted by state-sponsored actors, according to a second legal complaint filed against the company this year.
And in February 2016, Abdulaziz received a message from the company saying his email address and phone number had been accessed as the result of a bug that had potentially impacted a small number of accounts and had since been fixed.
But neither Ahmadi nor Ahmad have received any such warnings from Twitter, and say they and others have been left to speculate the extent to which their lives – and those with whom they were connected - may have been compromised.
MEE asked Twitter as well as the FBI, which has been investigating the spying, if the thousands of users whose data was allegedly accessed had been identified, and whether the company or the agency had warned those users. Both declined to comment.
"They should have at least released a press statement saying, ‘Hey this is what we are going to do, this is how we are going to protect the users, this is our next plan of action’, but nothing. Crickets. It’s crazy,” said Ahmadi.
Ahmad said: "I was not informed. So if I was not informed, why would they inform someone who was in (Saudi Arabia) that your account has been hacked or compromised? I think that goes to show what they think of us: we don’t matter very much.”
Since becoming de facto leader of the kingdom in 2017, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has heavily cracked down on human rights activists and dissidents, in a struggle that has played out largely online.
That August, Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s former top adviser, started what he called the "Black List" hashtag, which was used to target critics of the government, and tweeted that the government had ways to find anonymous Twitter users.
"Does a pseudonym protect you from #the_black_list? No. 1) States have a method to learn the owner of the pseudonym 2) the IP address can be learned using a number of methods 3) a secret I will not say,” he tweeted without explanation.
A month later, a wave of arrests started in the kingdom, first targeting academics and scholars, business people who were locked up in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, and then women’s rights activists, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) has detailed in a report released this month.
Now activists say they are concerned that some of those arrested during this period may have been imprisoned as a result of the spying, and that the full extent of damage has yet to be fully revealed.