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Saudi women's rights activist says phone hack by U.S. contractors led to arrest -lawsuit

2 minute read

Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul is seen in this undated handout picture. Marieke Wijntjes/Handout via REUTERS

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WASHINGTON, Dec 9 (Reuters) - A Saudi Arabian women's rights activist accused three former U.S. 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 U.S. court.

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 in a federal court in Oregon by the privacy non-profit organization Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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It alleged that the surveillance operation run by the three ex-contractors and DarkMatter, a United Arab Emirates cybersecurity company, led to 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 al-Hathloul was targeted in 2017 by a team of U.S. mercenaries who surveilled dissidents on behalf of the UAE under a program called Project Raven, which categorized her as a national security threat and hacked into her iPhone.

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 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 U.S. federal prosecutors in September, for hacking charges, the three former U.S. 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," 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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Reporting by Joel Schectman; editing by John Stonestreet

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Award-winning reporter covering the intersection between technology and national security with a focus on how the evolving cybersecurity landscape affects government and business.

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