Bezos hacked by Saudi crown prince months before Khashoggi murder – report

MBS and Bezos were reportedly having a conversation on WhatsApp when a malicious file was sent to the Amazon owner's phone.

SAUDI CROWN Prince Muhammad bin Salman attends a cabinet meeting in Riyadh earlier this month. (photo credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/REUTERS)
SAUDI CROWN Prince Muhammad bin Salman attends a cabinet meeting in Riyadh earlier this month.
(photo credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/REUTERS)
Amazon owner Jeff Bezos had his mobile phone hacked in 2018 through a WhatsApp message reportedly sent by the personal account of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia several months before the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to The Guardian.
The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (UNHROC) called for an investigation into the matter. In a statement published on its website UNHROC said its experts were "gravely concerned by information they have received suggesting that, in contravention of fundamental international human rights standards" that the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia allegedly used WhatsApp to spy on The Washington Post owner and Amazon CEO, Jeffery Bezos.
"The forensic analysis assessed that the intrusion likely was undertaken through the use of a prominent spyware product identified in other Saudi surveillance cases, such as the NSO Group's Pegasus-3 malware, a product widely reported to have been purchased and deployed by Saudi officials. This would be consistent with other information," UNHROC wrote.
NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, which stands accused of having its technology used by the Saudis to track journalist Jamal Khashoggi, responded to the alligations that Bezos' phone was hacked.
"NSO is shocked and appalled by the story that has been published with respect to alleged hacking of the phone of Mr. Jeff Bezos. If this story is true, then it deserves a full investigation by all bodies providing such services to assure that their systems have not been used in this abuse. Just as we stated when these stories first surfaced months ago, we can say unequivocally that our technology was not used in this instance," the firm wrote on its website.
"These types of abuses of surveillance systems blacken the eye of the cyber intelligence community and put a strain on the ability to use legitimate tools to fight serious crime and terror," it continued.
A digital forensic analysis found that the encrypted message from Mohammed bin Salman’s number is believed to have included a malicious file that infiltrated Bezos’ phone.
It is “highly probable” that the intrusion was triggered by an infected video file sent from MBS’s phone to Bezos, according to the report.
The Saudi Arabian Embassy in the United States dismissed the reports on Wednesday morning.
“Recent media reports that suggest the kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’s phone are absurd. We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out,” said the embassy in a message posted on Twitter.
The crown prince and the billionaire were reportedly having what seemed like a friendly conversation on WhatsApp when the file was sent on May 1 of 2018. Large amounts of data were taken from Bezos’s phone within a matter of hours, according to a person familiar with the matter, but it is unknown what exactly was taken from the phone or how it was used.
The New York-based tabloid the National Enquirer published intimate details about Bezos’s private life, including text messages, nine months after the alleged hacking.
The infiltration into Bezos’s phone allegedly took place five months before the murder of Khashoggi, a journalist for The Washington Post, a newspaper owned by Bezos.
Digital forensic experts began examining Bezos’s phone after the National Enquirer exposé. The company that owns the National Enquirer claimed that it received the information from the estranged brother of Bezos’s girlfriend.
The investigators, according to The Guardian, found with “high confidence” that the Saudis had managed to “access” Bezos’s phone and had “gained private information” about him.
Bin Salman has been under fire for over a year since the murder of Khashoggi. According to numerous reports, the Saudis were able to listen to Khashoggi and spy on the journalist by using an Israeli spyware known as Pegasus, developed by the Herzliya-based company NSO.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye stated in July that Pegasus was a “paradigmatic example” of private surveillance products and their mobile device hacking capabilities.
An NSO spokesperson said the technology is designed to help save lives and to pursue terrorists possessing encryption capabilities. NSO CEO Shalev Hulio denied in February that Khashoggi was targeted by NSO products and technology.
WhatsApp sued NSO Group in October for allegedly building and selling a hacking platform that exploited a flaw in WhatsApp-owned servers to help clients hack into the cellphones of at least 1,400 users. A “significant” portion of the known victims are high-profile government and military officials spread across at least 20 countries on five continents.
Amnesty International has filed a request to revoke NSO’s export license. The primary allegations against NSO are that its Pegasus software has been used by nondemocratic governments to spy on journalists and dissidents, and that the Defense Ministry has failed to carry out proper oversight. This case was filed after Amnesty claimed that NSO’s software was used to spy on its officials by a foreign client of NSO.
Gavin de Becker, Bezos’s head of security, wrote in The Daily Beast that the Saudi crown prince had developed a “close relationship” with David Pecker, the chief executive of the company that owned the National Enquirer, in the months before the exposé was published.
Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur who investigates extrajudicial killings, has reviewed the findings of the forensic analysis of Bezos’s phone, according to The Guardian.
The UN special rapporteur found “credible evidence” that the crown prince and other senior Saudi officials were responsible for the Khashoggi’s murder. Callamard declined to comment to The Guardian on the alleged Bezos link.
The United Nations’ officials plan a public statement on Wednesday asserting that they found credible a forensic report
commissioned by Bezos’s security team that concluded that his phone probably had been hacked with a tainted video sent from a WhatsApp account belonging to MBS, Reuters has reported.
The UN statement will come from Agnes Callemard and David Kaye. They are reportedly building toward a fuller report they expect to give to the UN in June.
Saudi dissidents and analysts told The Guardian that Bezos was likely targeted because of his ownership of The Washington Post and its coverage of Saudi Arabia.
“He probably believed that if he got something on Bezos, it could shape coverage of Saudi Arabia in the Post,” Andrew Miller, a Middle East expert who served on the National Security Council under former US president Barack Obama, told The Guardian. “It is clear that the Saudis have no real boundaries or limits in terms of what they are prepared to do in order to protect and advance MBS, whether it is going after the head of one of the largest companies in the world or a dissident who is on their own.”
John Brennan, the former CIA director and CIA station chief in Riyadh, told MSNBC, “I have no doubt, given the Post’s relentless and appropriate condemnation of MBS for the killing of Khashoggi, that he would try to discredit, embarrass and hurt Bezos financially if he could.”
A lawyer for Bezos told The Guardian, “I have no comment on this except to say that Mr. Bezos is cooperating with investigations.”
Amazon declined to comment.
Reuters, Yonah Jeremy Bob and David Dimolfetta contributed to this report.