Fears have been raised that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could have amassed compromising information on dozens of wealthy, famous and powerful figures after he was accused of hacking the phone of Jeff Bezos.
Salman is said to have scalped huge amounts of data from Bezos’s phone starting in May 2018, after the pair had swapped numbers a month earlier during the prince’s schmoozing tour of the US and UK.
During that same tour the prince met scores of prominent individuals from tech billionaires Bill Gates and Sergey Brin, to former presidents George W Bush and Obama, to current leader Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
It comes as UN investigators – who have called for an immediate US probe into the hacking claims – warned attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos against swapping details with Saudi officials over security concerns.
Mohammed bin Salman is accused of hacking Jeff Bezos after they swapped numbers on a US glad-handing tour in 2018. On the same trip he met dozens of other prominent figures, including President Donald Trump
Bin Salman’s first meeting was with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump (right), and it is thought he swapped WhatsApp messages with Kushner afterwards – just as he did with Bezos
Aside from Bezos, the Crown Prince also met fellow tech pioneers Sergey Brin (left), who co-founded Google, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates (right)
Apple CEO Tim Cook (left) and several other members of Apple leadership receive Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the company’s new Apple Park headquarters
Agnes Callamard, a UN investigator who has seen evidence of the alleged hacking hacking, told The Guardian that Davos attendees are ‘extremely vulnerable’ to hacks.
‘I am disappointed that organisers did not put any emphasis on surveillance on their agenda,’ she said.
Speaking about the hack against Bezos, she added that it appears Saudi Arabia was not targeting specific data on his phone – but was on a phishing expedition aimed at gathering a broad range information which might prove useful in future.
The tactic is commonly used by Russia – called kompromat – where the government amasses as much compromising material as it can on people it deals with, before using it whenever it needs to gain an advantage.
Ahead of his coast-to-coast tour, Bin Salman – also known as MBS – stopped off in the UK where he met with the Queen, then-Prime Minister Theresa May and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In total, Saudi Arabia said the prince met with 50 prominent figures during the tour, including celebrities like Oprah, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman.
Ahead of the prince’s visit to the US, he stopped in the UK where he met then-Prime Minister Theresa May and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is also thought to have swapped WhatsApp messages with him
The Saudi Crown Prince also met the Queen as part of his visit to the UK
British billionaire Richard Branson was one of 50 prominent figures to meet with the prince
It is not clear whether any of those people exchanged numbers with MBS or if he subsequently messaged them, though it seems likely that some did given the purpose of the tour was to drum up business for the Arab kingdom.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that Kushner, Trump’s Middle East envoy and now 2020 campaign manager, has swapped WhatsApp messages with Bin Salman since their meeting.
A source also insisted last night that they are ’99 per cent sure’ that Boris Johnson had exchanged WhatsApp messages with MBS.
Another said that Johnson frequently handed his personal phone number over to world leaders while he was foreign secretary.
Callamard pointed to four other people around Khashoggi who she believes were targeted by Saudi Arabia.
They include Yahya Assiri and Omar Abdulaziz, contacts of the journalist; London-based satirist Ghanem al-Dosari; and an official from Amnesty International.
MBS is accused of hacking Bezos on May 1 by sending him a corrupt video file that contained a piece of spyware, likely the Pegasus virus.
Bezos pictured during a previous meeting with Bin Salman in Riyadh in 2016. The pair initially had a good relationship, which soured over coverage of Saudi Arabia in the Washington Post, which Bezos owns
The first messages between Bezos, in green, and the Saudi prince were in April after they met at a dinner in Hollywood
This is the message that Salman sent Bezos on May 1 which is thought to have been the ‘hack’ that harvested data from his phone
After Bezos received the file, investigators say the amount of data send by his phone went up 29,000% – though he would have been unaware of this.
Five months after the data was transferred, Jamal Khashoggi – a critic of MBS and columnist for the Washington Post which Bezos owns – was killed by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul.
Three months after that, and with the Post publishing hard-hitting reports linking MBS directly to the killing, the National Enquirer published details of Bezos’s affair that they said have been ‘obtained’ from his phone.
Bezos tasked security consultant Gavin de Becker with finding the source of the leak, and while clues initially pointed to Michael Sanchez – brother of Bezos’s then-mistress Lauren Sanchez – events subsequently took a strange turn.
Bezos claims the Enquirer threatened to expose nude photos of him unless De Becker stated that hacking was not involved in their news-gathering for the story.
The January 2019 National Enquirer expose which Bezos’ team have suggested was an orchestrated take down by AMI and the Saudi Arabian government
The Amazon founder also implied in a blog post that the National Enquirer got the story because of publisher David Pecker’s links with Saudi.
AMI, the company which publishes the Enquirer, has previously denied that Saudi Arabia was the source for the story.
Saudi Arabia has called claims that it hacked Bezos’s phone ‘absurd’.
Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, and David Kaye, special rapporteur for freedom of expression, say the alleged hack was part of a wider ‘intimidation campaign’ against Saudi’s critics.
They called for an ‘immediate investigation by US and other relevant authorities’.
They added: ‘The allegations reinforce other reporting pointing to a pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents and those of broader strategic importance to the Saudi authorities, including nationals and non-nationals.
‘These allegations are relevant as well to ongoing evaluation of claims about the crown prince’s involvement in the 2018 murder of Saudi and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Behind closed doors, Saudi officials told the Wall Street Journal that they were aware of efforts to hack Bezos’s phone, but not to blackmail him.
According to the Journal, Salman’s former senior adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, was also involved in the hacking.
‘The alleged hacking of Mr Bezos’s 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.’
George W Bush (centre left), his father George Bush Sr (front) and former Secretary of State James Baker (top right) meet with Bin Salman during his US trip
Mike Bloomberg, who is now running for the Democrat nomination for president, meets with Bin Salman in a cafe in New York
Bin Salman shakes hands with then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis
Earlier on Wednesday, screenshots of the WhatsApp message Salman reportedly sent to Bezos emerged.
Vice Motherboard published the images after obtaining them from the cyber security firm report into Bezos’ phone.
The firm – FTI Consulting – had been asked to look at the Amazon founder’s devices after the Enquirer expose about his relationship with Lauren Sanchez.
They discovered the messages from bin Salman including one which they say likely led to a trove of data being taken from his phone. It was sent in May 2018 and showed a Saudi flag and a Swedish flag with Arabic writing across it.
They also found a message from bin Salman to Bezos of a photograph of a woman who the firm said resembled Sanchez.
He sent it along with the joke: ‘Arguing with a woman is like reading the software license agreement. In the end you have to ignore everything and click I agree.’
The firm noted in its report that this was pertinent because anyone with access to Bezos’ phone would have known about his then secret romance with Lauren and looming divorce from his wife.
‘Our investigation learned of at least 2 instances in which texts sent to Bezos from MBS’ WhatsApp account may reveal awareness of private information that was not known publicly at the time.
An FBI investigation into the hack is ongoing. The bureau declined to comment.
Agnes Callamard, a UN investigator, says it appears that when Bin Salman hacked Bezos he wasn’t looking for specific information – but useful data that could be used in the future
Callamard has warned officials against swapping numbers with Saudi delegates at Davos (pictured, six of the kingdom’s senior figures at the conference) over security fears