A UN expert probing the alleged Saudi hacking of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’s phone has advised US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner to replace his phone, saying that as a frequent contact of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman he was also a potential hacking target.
“I will hope that Donald Trump’s son-in-law and anyone else is at the moment changing their phone, checking their phone and contacting the best cyber security experts so that we can get to the bottom of that hacking strategy and policy,” UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard told CNN.
An analysis released Wednesday showed Bezos’s phone was likely infected by spyware hidden in a message from the Saudi crown prince.
A forensic analysis by technical experts retained by Bezos after a leak of his personal information in early 2019 suggested that the Bezos iPhone was compromised by “tools” procured by a close associate of the Saudi de facto ruler.
The suggestion of the Saudi prince’s role in the hacking prompted calls for further investigation by UN human rights officials looking into the October 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and contributor to The Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos.
“The alleged hacking of Mr Bezos’s phone, and those of others, demands immediate investigation by US and other relevant authorities,” Callamard and fellow rapporteur David Kaye said in a statement in Geneva.
Any investigation should also look at the “continuous, multi-year, direct and personal involvement of the Crown Prince in efforts to target perceived opponents,” they added.
Callamard, the UN expert on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and Kaye, the expert on freedom of expression, said the latest revelation “suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia.”
The technical experts hired by Bezos concluded “with medium to high confidence that Bezos’s iPhone was compromised via malware sent from a WhatsApp account used by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman,” said the report by FTI Consulting, first reported by the online news site Vice.
Saudi authorities rejected the latest allegations.
“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.
Callamard and Kaye have also said the hacking was likely carried out using spyware developed by Israel’s NSO Group.
“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,” they said in a statement Thursday.
The Israeli firm said in a statement it was “shocked and appalled” by the reports linking its software to the Bezos phone hacking, and asserted that its software was definitely not involved.
NSO Group’s flagship malware, called Pegasus, allows spies to effectively take control of a phone, surreptitiously controlling its cameras and microphones from remote servers and vacuuming up personal data and geolocations.
The spyware has also been implicated in the gruesome killing of Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. It is also said to be behind a campaign to compromise proponents of a soda tax in Mexico and an effort to hack into the phone of an Arab dissident that prompted an update to Apple’s operating system.
The firm has been adamant that it only licenses its software to governments for “fighting and terror” and that it investigates credible allegations of misuse.
The two UN experts have said Bezos’s iPhone may have been hacked on May 1, 2018, with an MP4 video file sent from an account used by the Saudi crown prince.
The two had exchanged numbers a month before, they said.
An analysis reportedly found that within hours of receiving the video file, there was an “unprecedented exfiltration” of 126 MB of data from Bezos’s phone. This continued undetected over a period of “some months” with rates of as much as 4.6 GB higher than the baseline.