Saudis using obscure military tech to hunt down fleeing abused women

Rahaf Mohammed fled in a harrowing escape. Screen capture by CBC News: The National via YouTube video

Every year, at least 1,000 women flee Saudi Arabia’s repressive regime. But rather than doing anything that might benefit the women and thus encourage them to stay, the Saudi government is using military-grade technology to track down the cellphones of women who flee.

And as Business Insider reports, the women already expect their friends to be interrogated, their social media to be heavily scrutinized and their passports to be canceled. But they don’t expect the government to use drone technology to hunt their cellphones, let alone the packaging it came in.

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However, that’s exactly what the government does.

And this technology, which relies on spy-grade tracking equipment to decipher a cellphone’s packaging, is so accurate it can trace a Saudi runaway to within a few feet of her location. The tracking equipment searches for the cellphone’s unique 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI). This isn’t a particularly new strategy, but it’s usually reserved for military or intelligence services, a la James Bond.

This sophisticated technique shows just how desperate Saudi Arabia is about quelling these escapes, and it has taken to equating these women with terrorists.

Recently, four women — all of whom fled the country within the past two years, came forward to talk to Insider to discuss the harrowing experience of being tracked to their new homes in the West. Two of the women fled in early 2019 said Saudi security services entered their family homes after the escapes, demanding to be shown the packaging of their cellphones.

Afraid of reprisals, each woman asked to remain anonymous. All of them said Saudi agents told their families that the IMEI number was the key to tracking their whereabouts and retrieving them.

In the third case, an activist has come forward to speak on the woman’s behalf because she has been captured by Saudi agents. According to Taleb al-Abdulmohsen, based in Germany, her IMEI number led the agents to her.

She’d fled to the former Soviet country of Georgia and was apprehended in 2018. Via her state-funded attorney, she learned the unpleasant news that Saudi operatives, with the help of Georgian police, had discovered her IMEI number, al-Abdulmohsen said.

She was taken back to Saudi Arabia, where she still remains.

A fourth woman nearly suffered the same fate but was able to secure asylum before agents could send her back, al-Abdulmohsen said.

But it’s not just that this country is really just kidnapping escaped women and sending them back for more torment, it’s that every major step in a woman’s life — from birth to death, is controlled and scrutinized by the patriarchy, The Economist notes. It’s all because of the kingdom’s wilaya, also called the guardianship law.

While this law has received less attention than the kingdom’s much-publicized sex-specific driving ban (the only such driving ban in the world) it’s a draconian law that prohibits women from doing things that most of us in the western world take for granted.

Women can only travel or work abroad if permission is granted by a male wali. If she needs hospital treatment or an ID card, a wali presides over her. That’s even true for any woman completing a prison sentence.

The Economist notes:

“From birth to death, they are handed from one wali to the next — father, husband and, if both of those die, the nearest male relative. Sometimes that might be a teenage son or brother because although boys are treated as adults from puberty, women are treated as minors all their lives.”

Perhaps the bravest escape is that of 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed, who barricaded herself in a hotel room at an airport in Bangkok, Thailand. She live-streamed her efforts to escape her family and receive asylum. In the process, she gained 114,000 followers, sparking plenty of media interest. Mohammed has said she feared she would be killed if she was forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

After her live-stream became viral, Abdulelah Al-Shuabi, the Saudi charge d’affaire jokingly said he wished Thai police “would’ve taken her phone instead of her passport.”

What’s especially sad is that many women fleeing this awful regime are afraid that their families will kill them, or that they will be imprisoned if they are captured.

In 2017, one woman, Dina Ali Lasloom was caught in Manila and has not been seen since she was taken back to Saudi Arabia against her will.

It’s no easy trick to disable IMEI numbers either.

This technology, used by the U.S. National Security Agency tracks IMEI numbers from cellphones belonging to targets as a way to direct drone strikes. It’s done this in Afghanistan, according to leaked military documents.

And if a woman flees to Georgia, she can’t just switch a phone’s SIM card to protect herself, Matthew Hickey, a professional hacker told insider.

“Putting a new SIM into a phone will change its IMSI number, but the phone will still have the same IMEI number so cell phone companies can easily see that these different SIM cards are being used in the same phone,” he said. “The only way for an individual to avoid this type of trafficking is to replace the handset, physically remove and replace a chip to obtain a new imei, or use a phone that has a reprogrammable imei.”

Whether women’s civil rights will be better protected in this repressive regime remains to be seen. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced “Saudi Vision 2030,” a formal plan to modernize the nation. It’s purported that the plan will give women more rights, and two of the extensively publicized gestures included giving women the right to drive and a new law that made it illegal for men to divorce their wives without telling them.

And if women are ever to be treated as equals, men in Saudi Arabia must stop treating women as if they are children. For all its wealth, this country is clearly a gilded birdcage for women.

Watch Rahaf Mohammed tell her harrowing story in the video below.

Featured image courtesy of the video above