Secrets, lies and cyber warfare: What Jeff Bezos’ phone hack could tell us about Saudi attacks abroad

Analysis: Saudi Arabia has dismissed the reports as ‘absurd’, but it has both the motivation and the means to hack the Amazon CEO’s phone

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Wednesday 22 January 2020 18:25 GMT
Jeff Bezos (left) and Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammad bin Salman
Jeff Bezos (left) and Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (AP/Getty)

Saudi Arabia has described the claims that Prince Mohammad bin Salman​ helped hack the phone of Jeff Bezos as “absurd” and called for a thorough investigation “so that we can have all the facts out”.

At first glance, it does indeed seem absurd that accounts directly linked to the crown prince would play such a blatant role in a risky operation. The first reaction of many security analysts was to question why such a fraught path would be taken when there were other ways of spying on the communications of the Amazon CEO.

“Absurd” was also the term used by Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud​, the kingdom’s foreign minister, when asked about the affair at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos. “I think absurd is exactly the right word. The idea that the crown prince would hack Jeff Bezos’ phone is absolutely silly,” he wanted to stress.

Recent events tend to show, however, that normal rules of caution do not apply when it comes to the kingdom and its royal family, and that it would be wise not to take even the strongest denials of wrongdoing at face value.

One only has to remember that the official Saudi reaction to the first reports that Jamal Khashoggi had been killed in the country’s consulate in Istanbul was that the allegations were “absolutely false and baseless”, along with calls for an investigation which will “categorically prove that this did not happen”.

The various investigations into the murder of the journalist did not go well for the kingdom of course. The crown prince, also known as MBS, and his most senior aides were implicated, the Saudis were forced to admit culpability for the murder and dismemberment. Their own investigation and court case, which concluded that just five mid-level officials were responsible, were widely dismissed as a whitewash.

Nevertheless, the Saudis will presumably back the call by the United Nations for an immediate investigation into the claims of the hacking in which Bezos was targeted as the owner of The Washington Post, the newspaper that employed Khashoggi as a columnist.

It said in a statement, Agnes Callamard, a special rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, a special rapporteur on freedom of expression, said: “The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the crown prince in surveillance of Mr Bezos... The alleged hacking of Mr Bezos’ phone, and those of others, demands immediate investigation by US 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.”

The UN officials say that they had found credible a forensic report commissioned by Bezos’ security team, which concluded that there was a medium to high probability that his phone had been breached through an infected video sent from an account belonging to MBS.

The report by FTI Consulting is also said to have concluded that a huge amount of data began to be extracted from Bezos’ phone around four weeks after the video was shared in mid-2018.

Prince Mohammad’s alleged involvement in the hack was first widely reported by The Guardian newspaper this week. It claimed that an encrypted message from the number used by him is likely to have infiltrated the telephone used by Bezos.

Bezos has said in an online post published in February 2019 that he has begun to be perceived as an enemy by the Saudis because of the critical articles Khashoggi wrote for The Post and the newspaper’s coverage of his killing.

Gavin de Becker, a security consultant working for Bezos, has also suggested that the Saudis were involved in hacking. He wrote in The Daily Beast website in March 2019: “Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information.”

Bezos has suggested that the phone attack allowed the supermarket tabloid, the National Enquirer, access to private texts he exchanged with former television presenter Lauren Sanchez, with whom he was having an extramarital affair.

Prince Mohammad, according to The New York Times, had met David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media Inc (AMI), the owner of the National Enquirer, in Saudi Arabia in September 2017 and the two men had remained in touch. Pecker’s company published a hagiographical article supplement on MBS when he visited the US in March the following year.

Pecker is no stranger to doing favours for his political allies. A Department of Justice investigation revealed that he had bought up and then suppressed scandalous stories about Donald Trump and women during the 2016 presidential election.

A spokesperson for the publisher of the National Enquirer, American Media, has insisted: “American Media does not have, nor have we ever had, any editorial or financial ties to Saudi Arabia.” A lawyer for Pecker stated that the source for the Bezos story was “not Saudi Arabia”.

However, if we are to believe Bezos, the motivation for the hacking was there. But what about the means?

The Saudi government, like many others in the region and beyond, have extensive dealings with private security contractors from a variety of countries including the US, UK and Israel.

Opponents of the Saudi government had complained about being subjected to regular cyber-attacks. Omar Abdulaziz, a dissident in exile in Canada, is suing the Israeli firm NSO Group for allegedly providing the kingdom with surveillance technology, named Pegasus, to hack his conversations with Khashoggi. In a separate action, WhatsApp is also suing NSO Group, claiming that its spyware had been used to infect 1,400 cell phones with the purpose of breaching the communications of its users.

Saudi interaction with security companies is not restricted to cyber. Two-and-a-half years ago claims began to surface in the security world that highly placed Saudi officials, close to the royal family, were trying to take out contracts to assassinate enemies of the kingdom – with major general Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The proposition was said to have been made at a meeting in Riyadh in March 2017. Among those present was major general Ahmed Al-Assiri​, the deputy head of Al-Mukhabarat Al-A’amah, the intelligence service, who was later to be tried and acquitted by a Saudi court over the murder of Khashoggi.

MBS speaks about his role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

The Saudi authorities refused to comment on the alleged meeting, as did lawyers for two businessmen supposedly present, George Nader, a Lebanese-American, and Joel Zamel, an Israeli with close connections to his country’s intelligence apparatus. According to security and diplomatic sources, the two men refused to get involved.

Reports of the meeting were published in a number of news outlets after the Khashoggi killing, including The New York Times, which also claimed that while turning down the offer, Nader told the Saudis of a London-based private security company run by former SAS personnel who might take the contract. The identity of the company has never been established. Representatives of Nader refused to verify whether he made the suggestion.

Soleimani has since been assassinated on the orders of Donald Trump. Nader, a former advisor to Trump’s presidential transition team and an important witness in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the US election, has pleaded guilty to multiple sex crimes involving minors.

Nader has admitted to possessing child pornography and bringing an underage boy to the US for “commercial sex”. His telephone played a part in uncovering his guilt – FBI agents discovered incriminating material while searching it for Russia-related evidence.

The hacking story is not going to go away. An investigation into whether the Saudi crown prince played a part in compromising the phone of Amazon’s CEO may find that the allegation was indeed “absurd”. But it also may yield more extraordinary information from the dark world of secrets, lies and cyber warfare.

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