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Saudis deny hacking Bezos' phone, UN calls for probe

January 22, 2020

The Saudi embassy in Washington called it "absurd" to suggest their country was behind the hacking of billionaire Jeff Bezos. UN experts said they had information pointing to the possible involvement of the crown prince.

USA Jeff Bezos in 2017
Image: Reuters/J. Roberts

Following media reports that Saudi Arabia stole information off Jeff Bezos's cellphone, two senior UN officials called for an "immediate investigation" on Wednesday.

UN special rapporteurs, Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, said they had information pointing to the "possible involvement" of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the alleged 2018 cyberattack.

They recommended that Saudi Arabia, the US "and other relevant authorities" investigate the incident.

"The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post's reporting on Saudi Arabia," the rapporteurs added.

Callamard, the UN special rapporteur for extra-judicial killings and Kaye, the special rapporteur for free expression, are working on a fuller report that would be shared with the UN in June, a source told Reuters news agency.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Embassy in Washington said the accusations were "absurd."

"We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out," the diplomats said via Twitter.

Video sent from prince's account

Sources cited by the UK Guardian newspaper said that billionaire Jeff Bezos was hacked via a video sent to him on WhatsApp from an account apparently used by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The prince and the US businessman were engaged in a seemingly friendly exchange when the video was sent in May 2018, the sources said. They added it was "highly probable" that the video contained a malicious file that became active on Bezos' cellphone. Large amounts of data were then siphoned off the device, according to the article.

Bezos is the owner of online shopping giant Amazon and the prestigious US daily Washington Post, which employed journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered. The dissident wrote columns critical of Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi operatives ambushed Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 and dismembered him.

Bezos accuses tabloid publisher of blackmail

In January 2019, Bezos and his then-wife MacKenzie announced they were getting a divorce. Just hours after the announcement, the mass-circulation National Enquirer teased a story about Bezos' extramarital affair and then published private text messages between him and former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez. The paper also claimed it had access to "lewd selfies" sent by Bezos.

In February, Bezos accused the publisher of the National Enquirer of trying to extort him. He claimed that American Media Inc. threatened to publish naked photos of him and requested money to sit on the story.

While the publishing company claims their information came from the brother of Bezos' extramarital partner, investigators hired by Bezos said it was highly likely that the Saudis "gained private information" about the entrepreneur.

Bezos, who is one of the richest men in the world, ended up paying his wife $38 billion (€34.3 billion) in Amazon shares as a divorce settlement in June, the largest divorce settlement in history.

dj, ed/se (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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