Saudi Prince Linked by UN Duo to Bezos Hack, Bid to Muzzle Post
Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Saudi Prince Linked by UN Duo to Bezos Hack, Bid to Muzzle Post

(Bloomberg) -- United Nations experts accused the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of possible involvement in hacking Jeff Bezos’s phone in an effort to “influence, if not silence” reporting on Saudi Arabia by the Bezos-owned Washington Post.

Bezos’s iPhone was infiltrated via an MP4 video file sent from the WhatsApp account used by the prince in 2018, according to a statement Wednesday by U.N. independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council.

“The alleged hacking of Mr. Bezos’s phone, and those of others, demands immediate investigation by U.S. and other relevant authorities, including investigation of the continuous,multi-year, direct and personal involvement of the crown prince in efforts to target perceived opponents,” Agnes Callamard, U.N. Special Rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, wrote in the statement.

Bezos, who is also the chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., had exchanged phone and WhatsApp numbers with the crown prince at a dinner in April 2018, a month before the alleged hack, according to the U.N. statement. On May 1, a message from the crown prince’s account was sent to Bezos through WhatsApp containing an encrypted video file. A forensic analysis found that within hours of clicking on the video file, “massive and (for Bezos’ phone) unprecedented exfiltration of data from the phone began.”

Around that time, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who was living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. and working as a columnist for the Washington Post, was writing pieces critical of the Saudi government. Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 by agents of the Saudi government. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has said it’s certain that the crown prince directed the killing and dismemberment of the Saudi insider-turned-critic.

As the Post began to report on the murder and role of the Saudi government and crown prince, a massive online campaign was being waged against Bezos, according to the U.N. report, identifying him principally as the owner of the Washington Post and prompting Twitter hashtags of “Boycott Amazon.”

On. Nov. 8, 2018 a single photograph was texted to Bezos from the crown prince’s WhatsApp account, along with a sardonic caption, according to the U.N. statement. It was an image of a woman resembling Lauren Sanchez, whom Bezos was dating, and sent months before the affair became public.

“At a time when Saudi Arabia was supposedly investigating the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, and prosecuting those it deemed responsible, it was clandestinely waging a massive online campaign against Mr. Bezos and Amazon targeting him principally as the owner of The Washington Post,” Callamard and Kaye wrote.

Saudi Prince Linked by UN Duo to Bezos Hack, Bid to Muzzle Post

The Saudi Embassy, in a Twitter post, denied involvement in the hack. “Recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’ phone are absurd,” according to the tweet. “We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out.”

The U.N. statement said 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, through the use of Israeli spyware.” The report notes that the product is widely reported to have been purchased and deployed by Saudi officials.

A representative for the NSO Group denied any connection to the Bezos hack, describing such a suggestion as “defamatory. Our technology was not used in this instance.” The representative said “our technology cannot be used on U.S. phone numbers, our products are only used to investigate terror and serious crime.”

The U.N. said the circumstances and timing of the Bezos hack “strengthen support for further investigation by U.S. and other relevant authorities of the allegations that the Crown Prince ordered, incited, or, at a minimum, was aware of planning for but failed to stop the mission that fatally targeted Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul.”

The twisting tale began in early 2019 with the surprise announcement that Bezos and his wife MacKenzie would divorce after 25 years of marriage. Shortly thereafter, the National Enquirer disclosed the extramarital affair between Bezos and Sanchez, a former television anchor, in a series of reports that relied, in part, on intimate text messages sent by the Amazon CEO.

Bezos later wrote an extraordinary blog post accusing the tabloid of threatening to publish more embarrassing text messages and photos unless he publicly affirmed that there was no political motivation or outside force behind the tabloid’s coverage.

Gavin de Becker, a security consultant for Bezos, said at the time that he believed the Saudi government had accessed Bezos’s phone before the Enquirer exposed the affair. He didn’t provide any direct evidence to back up his claims, which he said came from “our investigators and several experts.” De Becker said the Washington Post’s coverage of the Khashoggi murder probably explained why bin Salman sought to harm the Amazon founder.

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has written to Bezos seeking more information about the hack and concerns of Saudi involvement.

“Unfortunately, the breach of your device appears to be part of a growing trend,” Wyden wrote. “To help Congress better understand what happened -- and to help protect Americans against similar attacks -- I encourage you to provide my office with information regarding your case.”

Bezos has refrained from directly commenting on the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the hack, but on Wednesday tweeted a photograph from a memorial service honoring Khashoggi with the simple hashtag #Jamal.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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