The Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Muhammad bin Salman found himself mired in a new scandal, for allegedly hacking the phone of American billionaire Jeff Bezos, less than 16 months after the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by a Saudi hit squad.
Multiple news outlets including the Guardian, Financial Times and Daily Beast reported that bin Salman, or more commonly known as the MBS, was behind the hacking of Bezos' phone by sending a video over WhatsApp messaging service, loaded with spyware in a bid to extract files.
Bezos, the CEO of the online retail giant Amazon, also owns the American daily Washington Post, where the slain journalist Khashoggi used to write columns criticizing the repressive policies of the crown prince.
Hours after the scandal broke, Saudi Arabia's U.S. Embassy on Twitter late Tuesday called the allegations "absurd."
Saudi Arabian officials resorted to repeating the same pattern they followed after the killing of Khashoggi early October 2018, an immediate denial followed by calls for an investigation.
After months of investigation into Khashoggi's killing, brutal dismemberment and disappearance of his corpse, the UN and the U.S. intelligence service CIA blamed MBS as the perpetrator.
"We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out," added the Twitter message of the Saudi embassy on hacking reports.
The UN is already investigating the matter and will be releasing a detailed forensic report as early as Wednesday.
Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, also tweeted: "Tomorrow January 22 at 2:00 pm GMT, 9:00 am Eastern Time, watch this space for more information. @davidakaye #JusticeforJamal"
In response, David Kaye, the UN's Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion & expression, said on Twitter: "tomorrow (wednesday) @AgnesCallamard & I will be releasing a public statement on this in which we address these very serious hacking allegations."
The Guardian reported that after MBS WhatsApp account sent an infected file in an encrypted message early May 2018, "large amounts of data" were extracted from the phone of Bezos, who is considered the richest man of the world and a friend of MBS. Financial Times said the "massive" hack continued for months.
Anthony Ferrante, a cybersecurity expert who conducted a forensic analysis, told the Financial Times that he holds a "medium to high degree of confidence" that dozens of gigabytes were exfiltrated.
Some reports suggest that a tool called Pegasus was possibly used.
Pegasus, developed by the Israeli cyber arms firm NSO Group, is a spyware that can be installed on both iOS and Android devices.
Bezos and MBS became friends during a dinner in Los Angeles in 2018, months before the Khashoggi assassination, and reportedly exchanged phone numbers.
The hacking report, led by FTI Consulting, came nearly a year after the security chief of Bezos, Gavin de Becker, said in March that the companys investigators had come to believe Saudis had access to Bezos phone.
Bezos ordered an investigation after a tabloid, National Enquirer, published text messages Bezos sent to his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez at a time when Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos were going through a divorce after 25 years of marriage. The investigation, as reported by Financial Times on Tuesday, concluded that a WhatsApp account connected to MBS could have been involved in the hack of Bezos smartphone.
U.K. daily The Guardian claimed the hack would send shockwaves from Wall Street to the Silicon Valley and could undermine efforts by MBS "to lure more western investors to Saudi Arabia, where he has vowed to economically transform the kingdom even as he has overseen a crackdown on his critics and rivals."
British journalist Mehdi Hasan said: "Wow. Just wow," regarding the hacking reports and drew attention to how vulnerable another friend of MBS, Jared Kushner, could be. Kushner is the son-in-law and senior adviser of U.S. President Donald Trump.
"Also: Given Jared Kushner and MBS also Whatsapp frequently with one another, you wonder how compromised the phone of the president's son-in-law and senior adviser is," Hasan wrote on Twitter.
New York Times contributor Binyamin Appelbaum took a swipe at MBS: "We're about to find out whether messing with a billionaire's phone is going to be a bigger international problem for Saudi Arabia than killing one of that billionaire's employees," Appelbaum said on Twitter.
Hassan Hassan, the director of the Non-State Actors Program at Center for Global Policy, found the hacking of the worlds richest man", an American, in the U.S. unbelievable
Lets rephrase it once again: The Saudi Crown Prince used Israeli technology to hack the US billionaire Jeff Bezos phone. The Saudis bought the technology for state-run hacking purposes. MBS used that to hack someone. Months before he killed Khashoggi, he said in one of a series of tweets.