- Saudi Arabia is using military-grade technology to track down the cellphones of women who flee its patriarchal regime, several runaways have told INSIDER.
- Four women, all anonymous for fear of reprisal, said they were made aware of attempts to track their cellphones via their IMEI number.
- The unique ID number can pinpoint a phone virtually anywhere, but is rarely used by civilians. The US military uses IMEIs to direct drone strikes.
- The technique shows how seriously Saudi Arabia takes the escalating numbers of women fleeing its repressive, male-dominated society.
- Saudi authorities declined to respond to INSIDER’s requests for comment.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
Women who flee Saudi Arabia expect to be chased.
They expect their friends to be interviewed, their social media to be scoured, their passports to be frozen.
They mostly do not expect Saudi government agents to hunt down the old box for their iPhone.
However, according to multiple sources who spoke to INSIDER, this is what has been happening in Saudi Arabia’s quest to track down the growing number of women who flee the country every year.
Cell phone packaging can provide information that could — with the help of spy-grade tracking equipment — trace a Saudi runaway to within a few feet of her new location.
The data-point they seek is the cell phone’s unique, 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI. Tracking people with this data is not new, but is more usually the preserve of the military or the intelligence services.
The fact that such techniques are being employed shows how seriously Saudi Arabia takes the mass escape of as many as 1,000 women each year, people it has said are as much of a national-security threat as terrorists.
Four women, all of whom fled in the past two years, told INSIDER about their experience of being tracked from their new homes in the West.
Two women who fled together in early 2019 said that Saudi security services came to their family homes after they left, and demanded to be shown the packaging of their cell phones.
The refugees, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said that Saudi agents told their families that the IMEI number was the key to finding and retrieving them.
A third Saudi woman, who was captured by Saudi agents after fleeing, was also told that her IMEI number played a part. INSIDER was told her story by Taleb al-Abdulmohsen, an activist based in Germany, who passed her messages on.
The woman, apprehended in the ex-Soviet nation of Georgia in 2018, was informed by her Georgian state-funded attorney that Saudi intelligence found her IMEI number. Working with Georgian police, the attorney said, Saudi officials used it to find her.
Paraphrasing what the lawyer told her, she said: "The Georgian police tracked you upon request from the Saudi government, using an IMEI that they obtained from the packaging box of your cell phone."
The women was taken back to Saudi, where she has remained since.
A fourth escapee, who was nearly repatriated after fleeing to Australia, also related her story to INSIDER via al-Abdulmohsen.
She too said that Saudi agents found her via her IMEI number. She was able to secure asylum before Saudi officials could arrange for her to be sent back, she said.
‘Trivial’ work to find a runaway
IMEI numbers are commonly written on the SIM tray or behind the battery pack of a cell phone. On the iPhone 6S and earlier models, it’s located on the bottom end on the back.
Tracking people using an IMEI is almost exclusively a tool used by national security and military bodies.
The US National Security Agency (NSA) uses IMEI numbers from phones belonging to targets in Afghanistan to direct drone strikes, according to leaked documents published in October 2015 by The Intercept.
Micah Lee, a computer security engineer and journalist, told INSIDER that "it would be trivial for Saudi Arabia, as well as any other country, to track someone’s physical location if they know the IMEI number of their target’s phone."
"When cell phones connect to towers, they share their IMEI as well as other unique identifiers, which means that local telecommunications companies in Saudi Arabia know the physical location of every phone in the country, and could be compelled to share this information with the government."
The University of Toronto’s Citizenlab project revealed in May 2019 that three critics of the Saudi regime had their cell phones hacked by Saudi intelligence.
One, Omar Abdulaziz, is suing Israeli security company NSO Group, whom he claims sold Saudi authorities a phone-hacking program called Pegasus. INSIDER understands that the software does not include IMEI tracking.
An NSO Group spokesman told INSIDER that Pegasus is "not a tool to track asylum seekers or political dissidents."
How fleeing women puncture images of Saudi progress
Going to such elaborate ends to hack dissidents and track-down runaway women contradicts the image of cultural progress often projected by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The perception that women will be given more rights is a key part of bin Salman’s formal plan, dubbed Saudi Vision 2030, to modernize the nation.
Amongst the widely-publicised gestures were women getting the right to drive in June 2018, and a new law which means husband’s can no longer divorce their wives without their knowledge.
After two high-profile escapes in early 2019, Saudi Arabia’s Presidency of State Security produced a video in February likening women who run away to Jihadist terror operatives working for the likes of ISIS.
2019 has seen a sharp increase in the number of women escaping Saudi Arabia in high-profile circumstances, a phenomenon enabled by social media.
In January, 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed live-streamed her efforts to flee her family and secure asylum, gaining 114,000 followers and sparking large amounts of media interest in the process.
After barricading herself in a hotel room at Bangkok airport in Thailand, she ultimately received asylum in Canada.
Her new-found prominence led the Saudi Chargé d’affaires in Bangkok, Abdullah al-Shuaibia, to joke: "I wish [Thai police] would’ve taken her phone instead of her passport."
The former Soviet state of Georgia is the most popular destination for fleeing Saudi women, because it does not require them to have a visa to enter.
Matthew Hickey, a professional hacker with over 15 years of experience, told INSIDER that women fleeing to Georgia can’t just switch SIM cards to protect themselves.
"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."
Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser
"The only way for an individual to avoid this type of tracking is to replace the handset, physically remove and replace a chip to obtain a new IMEI or use a phone which has a re-programmable IMEI."
A Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman directed a request for comment from INSIDER to the Saudi Embassy in Georgia, which did not respond.
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