Human Rights Watch on Friday demanded a clarification from Saudi Arabia over allegations from security researchers that the kingdom is infecting and monitoring dissidents' mobile phones with surveillance malware.
The New York-based rights watchdog said surveillance software allegedly made by Italian firm Hacking Team mostly targeted individuals in Qatif district in Eastern Province, which has been the site of sporadic Shiite-led protests since February 2011.
"We have documented how Saudi authorities routinely crack down on online activists who have embraced social media to call out human rights abuses," said Cynthia Wong, HRW's senior Internet researcher.
"It seems that authorities may now be hacking into mobile phones, turning digital tools into just another way for the government to intimidate and silence independent voices," said Wong.
HRW said security researchers at the Toronto-based Citizen Lab have identified a malicious, altered version of an application providing mobile access to news related to Qatif, which if installed on a mobile phone infects it with spyware made by Hacking Team, which only sells to governments.
The spyware allows a government to see a phone's call history, text messages, contacts and emails and files from social media, HRW said.
The spyware also allows authorities to turn on a phone's camera or microphone to take pictures or record conversations without the owner's knowledge, it added.
Demonstrations in Eastern Province, where most of the mostly Sunni kingdom's two million Shiites live, erupted in 2011 alongside a Shiite-led protest movement in neighbouring Bahrain.
They took a violent turn in 2012 and clashes between police and protesters have so far killed 24 people, including at least four policemen, according to activists.
If authorities in the absolute monarchy are targeting activists' mobiles with spyware, "it could indicate a ratcheting up of efforts to scrutinise online activism in an environment that is already hostile to the freedoms of expression and association," HRW said.
HRW said Citizen Lab could not confirm "whether Saudi Arabia or any other government has successfully deployed Hacking Team tools in Saudi Arabia, nor who may have been specifically targeted."
"However, given that the spyware is embedded in a doctored version of an existing application, potential targets are likely to have an interest in current affairs related to the Qatif governorate," HRW said, adding Hacking Team-linked servers have been found by Citizen Labs to be present in the kingdom.
The watchdog criticised the sale of such spyware tools to governments that are likely to use them against dissidents and called on companies manufacturing the software to "cease any support and sales to abusive governments".