Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of infecting and monitoring dissidents ' mobile phones with surveillance malware.

The New York - based rights watchdog demanded a clarification on Friday from the kingdom, and said surveillance software allegedly made by Italian firm Hacking Team was mostly targeting individuals in Qatif, a site of sporadic Shia - led protests since February 2011.

Cynthia Wong, HRW ' s senior Internet researcher, said: " We have documented how Saudi authorities routinely crack down on online activists who have embraced social media to call out human rights abuses.

" 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. "

Saudi authorities have yet to respond to the accusations.

HRW said security researchers at the Toronto - based Citizen Lab had identified a malicious, altered version of an application providing mobile access to news related to Qatif, which if installed on a mobile phone infected it with spyware made by Hacking Team, which only sells to governments.

The spyware allowed a government to see a phone ' s call history, text messages, contacts and emails and files from social media, HRW said.

The spyware also allowed authorities to turn on a phone ' s camera or microphone to take pictures or record conversations without the owner ' s knowledge, it said.

Demonstrations in the Eastern Province, where most of the kingdom ' s two million Shia live, erupted in 2011 alongside a Shia - led protest movement in neighbouring Bahrain.

The protests took a violent turn in 2012. Clashes between police and protesters have so far killed 24 people, including at least four policemen, according to activists.