Saudi Arabia allegedly recruited Twitter employees to spy on users. That’s just one of many ways Saudi agents use tech tools to spy on critics.

Mohammed bin Salman

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Mohammed bin Salman
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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

  • The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reportedly uses hacks, social media surveillance, and spies to keep tabs on dissidents, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.
  • An alleged instance of this global spying operation surfaced earlier this week, when federal prosecutors charged two former Twitter employees with snooping on users on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
  • The Kingdom reportedly used surveillance tech to hack online accounts of dissidents, installed spyware on critics’ phones, and steered online harassment campaigns against its adversaries.
  • The report of Saudi Arabia’s alleged online spying and harassment comes at a time when the Kingdom is becoming a heavy-hitter in tech funding, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into Silicon Valley startups.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly weaponizing big tech to carry out surveillance and smear campaigns against dissidents and critics.

New reports this week shed light on Saudi Arabia’s alleged efforts to quash dissent using big tech. On Wednesday, Federal prosecutors charged two former Twitter employees with spying on users on behalf of the Saudi government. And earlier this week, Human Rights Watch published a report detailing the broader methods Saudi Arabia uses for surveillance and harassment online.

The reports build on previous allegations that Saudi Arabia has tracked down its critics online at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A 2018 report by Citizen Lab found that a Saudi activist’s phone was targeted with spyware, and other activists have come forward to report similar hacking.

Prince Mohammed’s alleged vindictiveness towards critics has at times led to violence – the CIA determined that he likely ordered the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

But publicly, Saudi Arabia is a rising power-player in Silicon Valley, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into startups and venture capital funds like Softbank’s Vision Fund, which funded WeWork, Slack, Wag, and Doordash. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that a Saudi-backed fund pumped $400 million into CloudKitchens, the new startup from Uber founder Travis Kalanick.

Here’s a rundown of the ways Saudi Arabia is allegedly using big tech to surveil and retaliate against critics.


Saudi Arabia reportedly used “commercially available surveillance technologies” to install spyware on dissidents’ phones.


According to a Citizen Lab study, Saudi Arabia used a spyware known as Pegasus, sold by the Israeli firm NSO group.

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NSO Group CEO and founder Shev Hulio.
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CBS News/60 Minutes

Source: Citizen Lab


Pegasus spyware essentially makes everything on a phone accessible.

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Samantha Lee/Business Insider

“Once a phone is infected [with Pegasus spyware], the customer has full access to a victim’s personal files, such as chats, emails, and photos. They can even surreptitiously use the phone’s microphones and cameras to view and eavesdrop on their targets,” according to Citizen Lab.


Multiple other Saudi dissidents say they’ve been targeted by Pegasus hacks .

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JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Human rights activist Yahya Assiri and comedian Ghanim al-Masarir are among those targeted in recent years, according to Human Rights Watch.


Saudi officials also reportedly used their public Twitter accounts to harass dissidents using the hashtag “#The_Black_List.”

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REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

The hashtag was started by Saud al-Qahtani, the Saudi government’s former director of cybersecurity, using his official Twitter account.

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Twitter

The tweet was screenshotted by the news outlet Bellingcat.


Dissidents have previously speculated that the Saudi government is able to unmask anonymous accounts — a theory that’s become more credible with the spying charges involving two former Twitter employees.

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Reuters

The alleged online spying and harassment ramped up following Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, according to Human Rights Watch.

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Reuters

The Human Rights Watch report recommends that Twitter and other tech companies investigate possible spying and advocate for the release of dissidents detained for criticizing Saudi Arabia.

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REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser