Saudi crown prince's WhatsApp linked to Bezos phone hack

Alonzo Simpson
January 23, 2020

Hours after the scandal broke, Saudi Arabia's USA embassy responded on Twitter, calling the allegations "absurd".

A probe would take time, yet the damage to Saudi Arabia's image the allegations bring could be more immediate, with speculation swirling as the kingdom prepares to host G-20 finance ministers next month.

"These allegations are relevant as well to ongoing evaluation of claims about the crown prince's involvement in the 2018 murder of Saudi and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi".

According to a report overseen by a former longtime Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and top cybersecurity official in the Obama administration, evidence on the phone suggests it was infected by spyware in May 2018 via a WhatsApp message from the account of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In a day of dramatic developments that threatened to deepen the crisis for Saudi Arabia, the United Nations rapporteurs released details of advanced technical analysis that established "grounds for a reasonable belief" that Bezos was the victim of "intrusive surveillance via hacking of his phone as a result of actions attributable to the WhatsApp account used by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman".

For instance, the FTI report, dated November and obtained Wednesday by the Vice News site Motherboard, said researchers didn't find any malware on the phone, nor any evidence that Bezos' phone had surreptitiously communicated with known spyware command servers.

Officials have spent the past year trying to rebuild the country's reputation after Mr Khashoggi's killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The hashtag #قاطعوا_منتجات_امازون (#BoycottAmazonProducts) was first tweeted early Thursday and was shared through the day with images of Jeff Bezos and the Amazon logo scratched out.

A top U.S. Justice Department official, Adam S. Hickey, would not say whether federal investigators were looking into the allegations. He split from his wife MacKenzie Sheri Bezos in 2019. "In the end you have to ignore everything and click 'I agree'".

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The independent experts, appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, published their statement after reviewing the report conducted by FTI Consulting, which was hired by Bezos' security advisor to manage the investigation. It showed a picture of a woman who resembled Lauren Sanchez, with whom Bezos was having a then-secret relationship, and read: "Arguing with a woman is like reading the Software License Agreement".

The hack, which reportedly occurred in May 2018, involved an account apparently owned by bin Salman sending Bezos a video over the WhatsApp messaging service which was loaded with spyware in a bid to extract files, according to reports from the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Daily Beast.

"The second text that demonstrates an awareness of non-publication information that could have been gained via surveillance of Bezos" phone was sent after more than three months of no communication.

Last year Bezos' security chief said the Saudi government was the source of the messages.

While the Kingdom was supposed to be investigating Mr. Khashoggi's murder and prosecuting those responsible, the Rapporteurs said, "it was clandestinely waging a massive online campaign against Mr. Bezos". Hours later, the egress jumped to 126 MB, according to the report.

Last year, Bezos made a surprise visit to the spot where Khashoggi was killed and hugged the deceased journalist's fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.

Saudi Arabia has called the allegations that it hacked the billionaire's phone "absurd" and "silly".

De Becker's inquiry included interviews with current and former executives at the National Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc., discussions with Middle East experts and cybersecurity officials who have tracked Saudi spyware.

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