- Oct 27, 2017
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.
But according to multiple sources who spoke with 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.
Cellphone 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 being sought is the cellphone's unique 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity. Tracking people with IMEI data is not new but is more usually the preserve of militaries or intelligence services.
Tracking people using an IMEI is almost exclusively a tool used by police, national security, and military bodies.
The US National Security Agency 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 "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."
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, an 18-year-old named Rahaf Mohammed livestreamed her efforts to flee her family and secure asylum, gaining 114,000 followers and sparking large amounts of media interest in the process. She said she feared she would be killed if she was forced back to Saudi Arabia.
After barricading herself in a hotel room at a Bangkok airport, she ultimately received asylum in Canada.
Her new prominence led the Saudi chargé d'affaires in Bangkok, Abdulelah Al-Shuaibi, to joke that he wished the Thai police "would've taken her phone instead of her passport."
Many female refugees believe they will either be killed by their families, or imprisoned, if they are captured. One, Dina Ali Lasloom, was captured in Manila in April 2017, has not been seen since she was repatriated against her will.
Saudi Arabia is hunting down women who flee the country by tracking the IMEI number on their cellphones
Cellphones are often Saudi women's route to independence. But, INSIDER has learned, Saudi Arabia is hunting women via their phone's unique IMEI code.