A 2018 hack into Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s phone was enabled by a file apparently sent to him from the personal WhatsApp account of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, two media reports said Tuesday.
While Saudi Arabia has previously been accused of being behind the hack, the reports for the first time pointed at a direct link to the crown prince.
The 2018 intrusion into the device led to the release of intimate images of Bezos, whose Washington Post newspaper employed as a contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist murdered later that same year at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul.
An encrypted message from the number used by Prince Mohammed is believed to have included a malicious file that infiltrated Bezos’s phone, according to a digital forensic analysis, sources told the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
The two men were having a seemingly friendly WhatsApp exchange when the unsolicited file was sent.
The report said that a “forensic analysis” of Bezos’s phone, including the evidence that the hack was enabled by a file send from the Saudi crown prince, has been reviewed by Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings. The indications are believed credible enough to warrant a formal request for an explanation from the Saudis.
Callamard confirmed to the Guardian that she is looking into “several leads” regarding the murder but would not comment on a link to the Bezos phone hack. She said only that she followed UN protocols requiring investigators to notify governments about coming public accusations.
Both the CIA and Callamard have directly linked Prince Mohammed to the killing of Khashoggi, a charge the kingdom vehemently denies.
The Washington Post reported, meanwhile, that a United Nations investigation will report on Wednesday that Bezos’s cell phone was hacked after he got the WhatsApp message from the account purportedly belonging to Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Soon after the message was sent, a massive amount of data was extracted from Bezos’s phone, the Post said investigators concluded.
The Saudi embassy in Washington dismissed the reports that the kingdom hacked Bezos’s phone and called for a probe of the claims.
“Recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr Jeff Bezos’ phone are absurd,” the Saudi Arabian embassy said on its Twitter account.
“We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out,” it said.
Recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos' phone are absurd. We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out.
— Saudi Embassy (@SaudiEmbassyUSA) January 22, 2020
Andrew Miller, a Middle East expert who served on the US national security council during the Obama administration, told the Guardian that Salman may have been hoping to get information that he could used to leverage Washington Post reporting on Saudi Arabia.
“He probably believed that if he got something on Bezos it could shape coverage of Saudi Arabia in the Post,” he said. “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 [Salman], whether it is going after the head of one of the largest companies in the world or a dissident who is on their own.”
Bezos hired Gavin de Becker & Associates to find out how his intimate text messages and photos made their way into the hands of the National Enquirer, which reported on the Amazon chief’s extramarital affair, leading to his divorce.
In March last year de Becker said he concluded that Saudi authorities hacked the Amazon chief’s phone to access his personal data.
“Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information,” de Becker wrote on The Daily Beast website at the time.
But de Becker did not specify which part of the Saudi government he was blaming for the hack, and gave few details about the investigation that led him to the conclusion that the kingdom was responsible.
In December a Saudi court exonerated Prince Mohammed’s top aides over the murder of Khashoggi, a verdict condemned globally as a travesty of justice but backed by Washington. Eight people were convicted for involvement in the killing, five of whom were sentenced to death.
The trials of the accused were carried out in near-total secrecy, though a handful of diplomats, including from Turkey, as well as members of Khashoggi’s family were allowed to attend the sessions.
Khashoggi walked into his country’s consulate in Istanbul on the morning of October 2018 to collect documents that would have allowed him to wed his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who waited for him outside. Inside, he was strangled and dismembered.
Spyware sold by the Israeli firm NSO Group, which can infect phones via WhatsApp, was allegedly used in connection with spying on Khashoggi.
Khashoggi’s death shocked the world and drew condemnation from the international community, including the United Nations.
US President Donald Trump condemned the killing, and his administration sanctioned 17 Saudis suspected of being involved, though not the crown prince. Trump, however, has steadfastly resisted calls by members of his own party for a tougher response and has defended maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia, framing its importance as a major buyer of US military equipment and weapons and saying this creates American jobs.