Saudi Arabia is going to extraordinary lengths to hunt down women who are fleeing the country seeking life outside the repressive kingdom. Technology normally used by the military to track targets for lethal drone strikes is being used against women that run away from the country.
The use of such advanced technology, which is rarely employed by civilians, was exposed by four Saudi women who spoke to the Business Insider about the way in which they were tracked down through their mobile phone's unique 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number.
Saudi security services used various means to track the IMEI number including raiding the homes and interrogating the family members of women who fled the country. They demand to be shown the packaging box of cell phones which contain the IMEI number. Some of the women who had fled to Europe and were tracked down were brought back to the country.
This method of tracking people using an IMEI is thought to be almost exclusively a tool used by the police, national security and military bodies. Saudi Arabia's use of this technology against civilians is said to be not only a sign of desperation but also an indication of the threat faced by dozens of women that have fled the kingdom.
The seriousness with which Riyadh views this growing phenomenon is a source of concern. According to the Business Insider 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 terrorist operatives working for the likes of Daesh.
Technology experts said that escaping the radar of the kingdom's security was not a simple matter. Changing a phone's SIM card is not sufficient. IMEI numbers are unique to the phone and the only way to escape being tracked is to replace the handset, physically remove and replace a chip to obtain a new IMEI, or use a phone which has a reprogrammable IMEI.
Though Saudi Arabia's use of IMEI numbers to track down women may not come as a huge surprise, it highlights the growing sophistication with which the country goes after anyone it deems a threat. Since Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman came to power, the kingdom has pursued its critics using some of the most advanced spyware including ones created by an Israeli spyware firm which was used to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi.