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Saudi Arabia reportedly recruited Twitter employees to steal personal data of activists

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Saudi Arabian officials allegedly paid at least two employees of Twitter to access personal information on users the government there was interested in, according to recently unsealed court documents. Those users were warned of the attempt in 2015, but the full picture is only now emerging.

According to an AP report citing the federal complaint, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah were both approached by the Saudi government, which promised “a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars” if they could retrieve personal information on certain users.

Abouammo worked for Twitter in media partnerships in the Middle East, and Alzabarah was an engineer; both are charged with acting as unregistered Saudi agents — spies.

Alzabarah reportedly met with a member of the Saudi royal family in Washington, D.C. in 2015, and within a week he had begun accessing data on thousands of users, including at least 33 that Saudi Arabia had officially contacted Twitter to request information on. These users included political activists and journalists critical of the royal family and Saudi government.

This did not go unnoticed and Alzabarah, when questioned by his supervisors, reportedly said he had only done it out of curiosity. But when he was forced to leave work, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his family literally the next day, and now works for the government there.

The attempt resulted in Twitter alerting thousands of users that they were the potential targets of a state-sponsored attack, but that there was no evidence their personal data had actually been exfiltrated. Last year, The New York Times reported that this event had been prompted by a Twitter employee groomed by Saudi officials for the purpose. And now we learn there was another employee engaged in similar activity.

The cases in question are still open and as such more information will likely come to light soon. I asked Twitter for comment on the events and what specifically it had done to prevent similar attacks in the future. It did not respond directly to these queries, instead providing the following statement:

We would like to thank the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for their support with this investigation. We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service. Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees. We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.

TechCrunch

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NEWS

Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

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But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

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One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

[embedded content]

Searchenginejournal.com

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