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June 20, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:57am

Guardian reveals fears of Saudi mission to ‘hack’ servers after source warning

By James Walker

The Guardian was warned that its servers and the communications of its reporters were the target of a Saudi hacking team earlier this year, the newspaper has revealed.

Guardian journalists were told by a source in Saudi capital Riyadh that a hacking team had been instructed to infiltrate the emails of reporters working on stories about the regime.

The newspaper reported yesterday that the tip-off was then backed up by a “copy of what appears to be a confidential order” signed by Saud al-Qahtani, an aide to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

The document ordered the “penetration” of Guardian servers under “complete secrecy”, according to the paper.

Head of investigations Nick Hopkins and investigative reporter Stephanie Kirchgaessner were reportedly named in the document.

A Guardian spokesperson said: “Earlier this year, the Guardian was warned it was being targeted by a cybersecurity unit in Saudi Arabia that had been ordered to ‘hack’ into the email accounts of our journalists investigating the various crises engulfing the Saudi royal court.

“The Guardian has repeatedly asked the Saudi authorities to comment about the alleged hack – and to give unequivocal assurances that any operation of this kind has been halted. They have so far declined to do so.

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“We are concerned about this potential threat and its implications for press freedom.”

The Guardian was first alerted to a hacking threat from Saudi Arabia after reporting on strains between the crown prince and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in March this year.

The newspaper reported that Saudi representatives had recognised the hacking accusations were serious but questioned whether the confidential order document was authentic and asked to see it.

The Guardian said it shared details of the document with Saudi authorities but had not yet independently verified the file’s authenticity

Press Gazette has contacted Saudi authorities for a response to the Guardian claims, but has yet to receive a response.

The newspaper’s fears over a hacking campaign by the Saudi regime comes after the UN released a report saying there was “credible evidence, warranting further investigation” that the crown prince and other senior officials might be liable for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi, a columnist with the Washington Post and an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime, was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October last year. Eleven suspects have been charged with his murder.

UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial executions Agnes Callamard added in her report, published yesterday, that Khashoggi’s death “constituted an extrajudicial killing” for which Saudi Arabia was responsible.

The 100-page document also detailed allegations that the phone of a Saudi political activist was infected with spyware that allowed Saudi authorities to access his communications with Khashoggi before the journalist’s death.

Picture: Graeme Robertson

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