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Saudi prince helped hack Amazon boss Bezos’ phone? Absurd, says minister

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SAN FRANCISCO/CAIRO (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister dismissed allegations that the crown prince may have been involved in a plot to hack the phone of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos as “absurd” on Wednesday, seeking to head off a dispute that could damage the kingdom’s reputation.

Cybersecurity experts hired by Bezos, the world’s richest man, concluded his phone was probably infiltrated by a video file sent from a WhatsApp account purportedly belonging to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2018, according to a person familiar with the matter.

They said the device began leaking massive amounts of data about a month afterwards, the source said.

Two U.N. officials will announce on Wednesday that there is enough evidence to suggest that the forensic analysis by FTI Consulting is credible and that Saudi Arabia had hacked Bezos’ phone, the person said, declining to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject.

However, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud dismissed the charges.

“I think ‘absurd’ is exactly the right word,” he told Reuters in an interview in Davos. “The idea that the crown prince would hack Jeff Bezos’ phone is absolutely silly.”

The allegations could nonetheless further damage relations between tech tycoon Bezos and Riyadh, and risk harming the kingdom’s reputation with foreign powers and investors.

The alleged cyberattack is said to have taken place months before the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a fierce critic of the Saudi government and a columnist for the Bezos-owned Washington Post.

Prince Mohammed, or MbS, said last year that the killing was carried out by rogue operatives and that he did not order it.

FILE PHOTO: Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, talk as they attend a ceremony marking the first anniversary of Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi Consulate, in Istanbul, Turkey, October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo

NATIONAL ENQUIRER

In another previous flashpoint, Bezos’ security chief said last year that the Saudi government had gained access to the Amazon CEO’s phone and leaked messages to U.S. tabloid the National Enquirer between Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, a former TV anchor who the newspaper said he was dating.

A month before, Bezos had accused the newspaper’s owner of trying to blackmail him with the threat of publishing “intimate photos” he allegedly sent to Sanchez.

The Saudi government has denied having anything to do with the National Enquirer reporting.

The Guardian first reported here the crown prince’s alleged involvement in a phone hacking plot on Bezos.

The U.N. statement on Wednesday will come from Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur for extra-judicial killings, and David Kaye, special rapporteur for free expression. They said in Twitter posts that they will be releasing a statement on Wednesday addressing the Guardian report.

The U.N. officials plan a public statement urging both the kingdom and the United States to investigate, said the person familiar with the matter. Outside experts consulted by the United Nations agreed that while the case was not airtight, the evidence was strong enough to warrant a fuller inquiry.

The officials are building towards a fuller report they expect to give to the United Nations in June, the person said.

Saudi Arabia’s U.S. embassy also dismissed the allegations.

Slideshow (5 Images)

“We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out,” it said in a message posted on Twitter.

Amazon (AMZN.O) declined to comment.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; writing by Pravin Char; editing by Mike Collett-White

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via Reuters