Middle East

Saudi women's rights activist says phone hack by US contractors led to arrest

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – A Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist accused three former United States intelligence contractors of an illegal hack of her phone that was instrumental in her being arrested and later tortured in her home country, according to a lawsuit filed in a US court.

Ms Loujain al-Hathloul helped lead a campaign to allow Saudi Arabian women to drive by live-streaming herself violating the ban, which was lifted in 2018.

She spent almost three years in Saudi jails and is currently banned from leaving the kingdom.

The lawsuit was filed on her behalf on Thursday (Dec 9) in a federal court in Oregon by the privacy non-profit organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It alleged that the surveillance operation run by the three former contractors and DarkMatter, a United Arab Emirates cyber-security company, led to Ms al-Hathloul’s arrest by the UAE’s security services.

From there she was extradited by private plane to Saudi Arabia, “where she was detained, imprisoned and tortured”, according to the lawsuit.

A 2019 Reuters investigation, cited by the lawsuit, revealed that Ms al-Hathloul was targeted in 2017 by a team of US mercenaries who surveilled dissidents on behalf of the UAE under a programme called Project Raven, which categorised her as a national security threat and hacked into her iPhone.

Ms Al-Hathloul said that as she was tortured, interrogators mentioned communications they apparently learned of through “unlawful access” to her phone, according to the lawsuit.

Saudi officials have denied torturing Ms al-Hathloul and say she received a fair trial. A request for comment to the Saudi and Emirati embassies in Washington was not immediately answered.

In a separate settlement with US federal prosecutors in September, for hacking charges, the three former US intelligence contractors Marc Baier, Ryan Adams and Daniel Gericke admitted to conducting surveillance operations on behalf of the UAE, including breaking into mobile devices.

Requests for comment sent to representatives for Gericke, Baier, Adams and DarkMatter were not immediately answered.

“No government or individual should tolerate the misuse of spy malware to deter human rights,”Ms al-Hathloul said in a statement. “This is why I have chosen to stand up for our collective right to remain safe online and limit government-backed cyber abuses of power. “

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