Ross Investigates

Human Rights Watch: Saudi Dissidents Owed an Apology, Honesty from Twitter

Twitter should apologize and make “reparations” to Saudi dissidents whose Twitter accounts may have been breached by the Saudi government, says Sarah Leah Whitson, the Human Rights Watch official who heads the group’s Middle East and Africa Division.

In an interview on the Law&Crime network program Brian Ross Investigates, Whitson said Twitter “needs to come clean and give complete transparency to exactly what information was breached and accessed,” by Saudi officials. “They also, most importantly, need to apologize to those who are affected by their breaches and to make reparations to them,” she added.

Whitson cited reports in the New York Times last year that Twitter was infiltrated by a Saudi agent and later fired in 2015. “The identities of Twitter users have reportedly been disclosed, a number of these people are now in jail, detained unjustly,” she said.

A Twitter spokesperson did not directly respond to the allegations of a “Saudi mole” inside the organization, but said, “We rigorously limit access to sensitive information to a very small group of employees with extensive security and privacy training. No other personnel have the ability to access this information, regardless of where they operate an none of these teams are based within (the) Middle East region.”

But Whitson, of Human Rights Watch, said in her interview that the Saudis have found ways around Twitter’s restrictions. “We know that they sell their information. They sell the slice and diced information at different tiers at different levels, sometimes to private users.”

The Human Rights Watch official also said a top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, “tweeted threats to Saudis who were criticizing the government on Twitter to say we can get you, we have secret ways of getting you so this is something that the Saudi government has publicly bragged about.”

Al-Qahtani is among the Saudi officials who reportedly has been charged in connection with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi government and a journalist living in the United States and writing for the Washington Post.

Requests for comment were not answered by officials of the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Whitson lamented how social media sites, especially Twitter, which were so important in giving rise to an unfiltered voice for the people of the Middle East, has become “a double-edged sword,” that can be used by governments to track dissidents.

In its statement, Twitter said, “We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use our service to hold power to account, and we have strong tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work.”

Ariel Tu contributed to this report.

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