NSO Group human rights

Spyware on trial: Justice for Saudi Activist Loujain AlHathloul

Update: September 28, 2023: The Oregon U.S District Court accepted the joint Access Now and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights amicus brief, using its “broad discretion” to permit such filings, and will give the brief “the weight this Court considers appropriate.”

On September 26, 2023, Access Now and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) jointly submitted an amicus brief calling on the Oregon U.S District Court to hold the Emirati spyware outfit DarkMatter accountable for illegally hacking prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain AlHathloul.

In 2021, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit in the Oregon U.S. District Court against DarkMatter Group, and three of its former senior U.S. executives, for illegally hacking AlHathloul’s iPhone to secretly track her communications and whereabouts. An amended complaint highlights how DarkMatter Group recruited former members of the U.S. national security establishment, including the three defendants, and used U.S. digital surveillance technology to target dissidents on behalf of the UAE, including Alhathloul.

DarkMatter is now moving to have the case dismissed, claiming that all parties have no ties to the U.S., and therefore, the court has no jurisdiction over them.

Authoritarian regimes like the UAE spare no effort to target human rights activists and journalists with spyware, and victims of this unlawful surveillance often have no place to seek justice. A ruling in favor of hacked activist AlHathloul will serve as a beacon of hope for those who have suffered from the merciless use of spyware technologies for far too long, and send a clear message to the purveyors of these dangerous technologies: your time is running out. Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy and Advocacy Manager at Access Now

AlHathloul spearheaded a campaign to defy the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020 for her women’s rights activism. In 2017, she was hacked through DarkMatter Group’s illegal mercenary program known as Project Raven, arbitrarily arrested by the UAE’s security services, then extradited to Saudi Arabia where she was detained, imprisoned, and tortured

Access Now and GCHR’s amicus brief supports the argument that U.S. courts have the power to hold the defendants accountable for hacking AlHathloul. The amicus brief also demonstrates how the widespread use of spyware in the Gulf region, coupled with the lack of access to justice and remedy for surveillance victims, results in irreversible damages and harm.

The proliferation of commercial spyware threatens human rights, peace, and democracy around the world, as well as the United States’ national interests. Oregon U.S District court has a chance to set the precedent in protecting human rights defenders from unlawful surveillance, and hold companies and their executives accountable for the harms they have enabled and perpetuated. Natalia Krapiva, Tech-Legal Counsel at Access Now.

AlHathloul v. DarkMatter Group is among several United States against spyware companies. Since 2020, at least four cases have been filed in the U.S. against another notorious spyware firm, NSO Group., including WhatsApp v NSO, Apple v NSO, and Dada v NSO.

Access Now extends deep gratitude to the team of lawyers who helped draft and filed our brief, including Carey Shenkman, Al Roundtree of Fox Rothschild LLP.