Three former U.S. officials are sued by a Saudi activist for hacking

RICHMOND (VA) -- Loujain Al-Hathloul is a prominent Saudi political activist who pushed for the end of a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia.

Three former U.S. officials are sued by a Saudi activist for hacking

She is suing three former U.S intelligence and military officers she claims helped hack her phone so a foreign government could spy upon her before she was tortured and imprisoned.

Thursday's announcement by the Electronic Frontier Foundation was that it had filed a lawsuit against U.S. Federal Court on al-Hathloul’s behalf against former U.S officials Marc Baier and Ryan Adams, as well as DarkMatter, a cybersecurity company that has contracted with United Arab Emirates.

Al-Hathloul claims that she and her two colleagues oversaw DarkMatter's hacking of her iPhone in order to locate her and steal her information. This was part of wider surveillance efforts targeting dissidents in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. She claimed that the hacking of her iPhone led to her "arbitrary arrest" by the UAE's security service and her rendition to Saudi Arabia where she was imprisoned, tortured and incarcerated.

David Greene, Director of EFF Civil Liberties, stated that companies selling surveillance software and other services to oppressive governments should be held responsible for any human rights violations.

DarkMatter gave her the codename "Purple Sword" according to the lawsuit. This is citing a 2019 Reuters investigation that first revealed the hacking of al Hathloul.

This lawsuit is the latest legal challenge against the private cyber-surveillance market. It often sells high-end hacking services to authoritarian governments. These services are used to secretly hack into phones and other devices of journalists, activists, and political opponents. Apple, the tech giant, filed a lawsuit against Israel's NSO Group last month to stop the most notorious hacker-for hire company from accessing Apple's products like the iPhone.

Baier, Adams, and Gericke all admitted to September providing advanced computer hacking technology for the UAE. They agreed to pay almost $1.7 million to settle criminal charges. This deferred prosecution agreement was described by the Justice Department as the first of its type. Each of the three were described by the Justice Department as former U.S. military or intelligence personnel. The AP reported that Baier had previously worked for the National Security Agency.

These three are part of a growing trend of U.S. officers with hacking and spying backgrounds working for foreign governments with questionable human right records. This has led to Congress calling for more oversight.

The attorneys for Baier, Adams, and Gericke didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. Emails to DarkMatter officials in Abu Dhabi were not returned.

Al-Hathloul was arrested in 2018. She was sentenced to nearly six years imprisonment last year under broad anti-terrorism laws. She was held for 1001 days and placed in pre-trial custody and solitary confinement. Her charges included agitating for change and using the internet to cause disorder.

Al-Hathloul, who was behind bars, went on hunger strikes in protest of her prison conditions. She also joined other female activists to testify to the judges that she was sexually assaulted and tortured by masked men during interrogations. Women reported being caned, electrocuted, and waterboarded. Others claimed they were threatened with rape and groped. Saudi Arabia denies any mistreatment.

Her case caused a worldwide uproar about the Saudi kingdom's record on human rights. President Joe Biden called her "a powerful activist for women's right' when she was released in February.

DarkMatter's hacking activities have been made public. The company's profile has declined over the years with some employees moving to G42, an Abu Dhabi-based company. This firm is linked to a mobile application suspected of being a spying device as well as Chinese coronavirus testing. American officials have warned that this app should not be used due to concerns over patient privacy, accuracy, and Chinese government involvement.

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