Are you so poor that all you have is money?
That was the question on my mind when I saw two pieces of tech news this week having to do with Saudi Arabia.
Or, more on point, news about the country’s de facto leader and Twitter investor, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This is the man who very likely ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year; a man I call the thug’s thug.
The first bit of news further burnished Prince Mohammed’s awful reputation: Federal prosecutors accused two former Twitter employees, with a skein of ties to the prince, of using their roles at the tech platform to spy on dissidents for the Saudi government.
“The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users,” David Anderson, the United States attorney for the Northern District of California, told The Washington Post about the spying that took place several years ago. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”
Except that is exactly what appears to have happened — and it feels dire. The complaint sounds like a geeky version of a spy movie, but it boils down to an all-too-familiar scheme when it comes to tech these days: A foreign government exploiting our digital tools for its gain — in this case by suppressing legitimate voices of dissent — while also damaging our safety and any remaining trust we may have in Big Tech.
More to the point, the Twitter spy story puts into sharp relief just how difficult it is to manage these sprawling platforms at all, both internally and externally, as they are continually pummeled with all sorts of vexing challenges.
The Twitter chief executive and co-founder Jack Dorsey admitted as much last week when he announced that the platform would end the sale of political ads on the service. While he did not rule out reversing the ban in the future, he noted, “It’s worth stepping back in order to address” the weaknesses in our systems.
But in this case of the Saudi spies within Twitter it’s hard to step back, because the company, like all the other tech behemoths, relies on a robust and growing tech force. And ensuring that these techies are not up to no good is never going to be easy or perfectly handled.
In fact, it might be impossible, given all the incentives that all kinds of bad actors — foreign governments and many others — have to infiltrate these gigantic repositories of information on all of humanity.
Let me underscore that: all of humanity. Everything we do and everywhere we go. An old cliché goes that you rob banks because that’s where the money is, so it stands to reason that you find every which way you can to plunder Google and Facebook and Twitter and Amazon because that’s where the golden veins of data are.
Increased vetting of tech workers by the companies is likely. And there will be increased scrutiny by federal investigators of not only what is being done with our data but also who is monitoring it. I have gotten many tips over the years of potential spies inside the major tech companies, and I cannot imagine how hard it is to ferret them out internally.
That’s why the developing case at Twitter will be important to watch. One of the accused former employees, Ahmad Abouammo, is a United States citizen and worked as a media partnerships manager, according to the complaint filed by prosecutors. The complaint accuses him of spying on three accounts for the Saudis. He also allegedly made up fake invoices for work and was paid for all the skulduggery with cash and a pricey watch. He has been arrested.
The other alleged principal perpetrator, Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen who worked at Twitter as a site reliability manager, seems to have been more industrious in his spying. He is apparently in Saudi Arabia now and is accused of sneaking around more than 6,000 accounts on behalf of higher-ups in Saudi Arabia who appear connected to Prince Mohammed.
While Twitter noted this week that it restricted access to sensitive information to a “limited group of trained and vetted employees” and that more generally, as a platform, it remains committed to those who take great risks to hold power accountable, the vulnerable points for entering these platforms are too irresistible and too numerous.
Then again, you can also just walk in the front door, as Saudi Arabia did at Twitter.
In 2015, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, who had already invested $300 million in Twitter through the Kingdom Holding Company in 2011, upped his investment and became the second-largest shareholder, a stake bigger than Mr. Dorsey’s. He was briefly jailed by Prince Mohammed in 2017, was freed in 2018 and has since been making more tech investments.
And Twitter has not been the only tech giant fueled by Saudi money. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign Public Investment Fund put up nearly half of the money for SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund in 2016. Even though that investment has been a wash, a result most spectacularly of floundering investments in WeWork (see the slide deck that SoftBank put out this week if you want an entertaining magic trick to watch money disappear), the Public Investment Fund is reportedly considering contributing to a second Vision Fund.
Meanwhile, Saudi money continues to wash throughout tech start-ups in Silicon Valley, even though quite a bit of it is deep under water, including at the car-hailing company Uber.
Travis Kalanick, the ousted chief executive and current board member of Uber, engineered Saudi investments in the company. While Uber insiders tell me there is an internal debate about the company’s continued association with Saudi Arabia, the Public Investment Fund’s managing director, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, remains on the Uber board. I am under no illusions that Silicon Valley will stop taking ever-dirtier Saudi money. But tossing Mr. al-Rumayyan off the board would go a long way in acknowledging the problem.
Which brings us to another investment we learned about this week — and the timing was just about perfect. (And by perfect, I mean it’s spectacularly awful and awkward.)
In what appears to be the first known direct funding of an American start-up since the Khashoggi murder, Mr. Kalanick has received some $400 million from the Public Investment Fund for a “ghost kitchen” delivery start-up called CloudKitchens. That service — which, as much as I disdain Mr. Kalanick’s behavior as Uber’s leader, I must admit, is a fascinating idea — is now valued at $5 billion. It has its own food delivery services with names like Excuse My French Toast and B*tch Don’t Grill My Cheese.
“Does ANYTHING sound LESS appetizing than a stew made from Saudi Arabia and Travis Kalanick,” wrote one person on Twitter.
Oy. As I said, all they have is money.
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