Saudi officials were reportedly aware of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged plans to hack Jeff Bezos’ phone, which was allegedly part of a wider intimidation scheme against murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The cellphone of the Amazon founder and owner of The Washington Post was likely hacked after he received an MP4 video file sent from Salman’s WhatsApp account after the two men exchanged phone numbers during a dinner in Los Angeles in 2018.
Officials said the video file was sent to Bezos’ phone five months before Saudi critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi government agents inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018.
At the time, the crown prince was being widely hailed for ushering in major social reforms to the kingdom, but Khashoggi was writing columns in the Post that highlighted the darker side of Salman’s simultaneous clampdown on dissent.
According to The Wall Street Journal, it appears those closest to bin Salman knew of his alleged plan to steal Bezos’ data.
The sources told the newspaper that they were ‘aware’ of a plan to hack Bezos’ phone but not of attempts to use that information for blackmail.
According to the Journal, Salman’s former senior adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, was also involved in the hacking as part of a broader intimidation campaign against Khashoggi.
As news of the hacking made international headlines, Bezos tweeted an image of himself alongside Khashoggi’s former finacee along with the hashtag ‘Jamal’ as an apparent reminder that the journalist was killed by the Saudi state.
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Saudi officials were reportedly aware of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (right) alleged plans to hack Jeff Bezos’ (left) phone
Salman’s former senior adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, was also involved in the hacking as part of a broader intimidation campaign against Jamal Khashoggi (pictured), who was killed in 2018
Amid the fallout from the story, Bezos tweeted an image of himself alongside Khashoggi’s former fiancee with the hashtag ‘Jamal’ as a reminder of the journalist’s death
The image was taken outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi was tortured to death, on the one-year anniversary of his murder.
On Wednesday, UN experts demanded an immediate investigation by the US and other authorities into allegations that Salman was involved in the hack.
The UN special rapporteurs, Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, said that they had information pointing to the ‘possible involvement’ of Salman in the alleged 2018 cyberattack, which preceded alleged threats by the National Enquirer to publish intimate photographs of the billionaire tech tycoon.
Callamard, the special rapporteur for extra-judicial killings, and Kaye, special rapporteur for free expression, said in a statement that they believed the hack was carried out ‘in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia’ and called for an ‘immediate investigation by US and other relevant authorities’.
Their recommendation is not binding, and how quickly – if at all – US officials might act on it was not immediately clear.
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.
On Wednesday, UN experts demanded an immediate investigation by the US and other authorities into allegations that Salman was involved in the hack. Bezos is seen with Salman in November 2016
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
In November, he sent this one – a forwarded meme showing a woman with the words ‘Arguing with a woman is like reading the software license agreement. In the end you have to ignore everything and click I agree.’ The cyber firm Bezos hired to look into his phone and whether or not it had been hacked say this suggested bin Salman knew he was getting a divorce – something that was not public at the time. The experts say she ‘resembled’ Lauren Sanchez
A final WhatsApp mesage sent to Bezos by bin Salman within hours of Bezos being told via phone call that Saudi Arabia had launched an online campaign against him. The cyber security experts say the timing of the message was suspicious given Bezos and Salman had not spoken for more than three months and he had just been told over the phone about the campaign
UN investigation suggests Israeli spyware may have been used in Saudi hack of Jeff Bezos’ phone
A report issued by the United Nations suggests that malicious spyware created by Israeli company NSO Group may have been used by Saudi Arabia to hack Jeff Bezos’ phone and steal his nude selfies.
The report issued on Wednesday by UN Special Rapporteurs suggested that NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was the ‘most likely’ explanation for data that was stolen from Bezos’ phone.
A video file that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent Bezos on WhatsApp on May 1, 2018 was identified in the report as the likely source of the malicious code.
The report notes that the Saudi Royal Guard acquired the Pegasus-3 spyware from NSO Group in a November 2017 contract.
The logo of the Israeli NSO Group company on a building where they had offices in Herzliya, Israel is seen in a file photo. A UN report ties the company to the suspected Saudi hack of Jeff Bezos’ phone
The firm’s wares have been used by governments to target journalists in Mexico, opposition figures in Panama and human rights activists from the Middle East.
The U.N. experts said Bezos’ phone hacking occurred during a period in which the phones of two close associates of Jamal Khashoggi were also hacked, allegedly using the Pegasus malware.
Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi hit squad in October 2018 after writing columns critical of bin Salman in the Washington Post, which Bezos owns.
NSO Group said in a statement it was ‘shocked and appalled’ by the reports linking its software to the Bezos phone hacking.
‘If this story is true, then it deserves a full investigation by all bodies providing such services to assure that their systems have not been used in this abuse,’ the company said.
‘Just as we stated when these stories first surfaced months ago, we can say unequivocally that our technology was not used in this instance,’ the company said.
In October, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, sued NSO in the U.S. federal court in San Francisco, accusing it of helping government spies break into the phones of about 1,400 users across four continents.
Targets of the alleged hacking spree included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials.
NSO has denied the allegations, saying it solely ‘provides technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime’.
Amnesty International will ask an Israeli court on Thursday to order Israel to revoke the export licence of NSO Group, whose software is alleged to have been used by governments to spy on journalists and dissidents.
‘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.’
An FBI investigation into the hack was ongoing. The bureau declined to comment.
Earlier on Wednesday, screenshots of the WhatsApp message Salman reportedly sent to Bezos emerged.
The January 2019 National Enquirer expose which Bezos’ team have suggested was an orchestrated take down by AMI and the Saudi Arabian government
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.
Sanchez and Bezos in India this week. The pair were in a relationship for months before it was exposed by The National Enquirer in January 2019 along with some of their private messages and photos of Bezos
‘The first such text was sent on November 8 2018 and contained a single photograph of a woman resembling Lauren Sanchez, with whom Bezos was having a then-secret personal relationship.
‘For context, this was after the relationship would have been obvious to persons with access to private texts, calls, and images on Bezos’ phone, but months before the relationship was known or reported publicly.
‘The photo and cryptic caption were sent precisely during the period Bezos and his wife were exploring divorce,’ the report reads.
They also found it suspicious that in February 2019, after more than three months during which the pair did not speak, Bezos received an unsolicited WhatsApp message from the prince within hours of receiving a briefing from someone about an online campaign by Saudi Arabia against him.
HOW THE ‘HACK’ UNFOLDED
September 2017: David Pecker, the publisher of AMI, reportedly meets Mohammed bin Salman
April 2018: The crown prince attends a dinner in Hollywood hosted by producer Brian Grazer where he meets Jeff Bezos
May 1: The video is sent from the prince’s phone to Bezos’ via WhatsApp
October 2018: Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is murdered by Saudi regime
November 2018: Bin Salman sends Bezos a text with the photo of the woman resembling Sanchez
January 2019: The National Enquirer publishes its expose on Bezos’ affair with Lauren Sanchez
February 2019: Bezos receives a report that Saudi Arabia has been conducting an online campaign against him.
Within hours of getting that phone call, bin Salman – who he has not spoken to for three months – WhatsApped him out of the blue to say there was no attack against him.
March 2019: Bezos’ private investigator Gavin De Becker says he has proof Saudi Arabia hacked Bezos’ phone – Saudi Arabia denies it
January 2020: The Guardian reports that the prince’s message was the source of the hack. A UN report comes to the same conclusion
‘The second text that demonstrates an awareness of non-publication information that could have been gained via surveillance of Bezos’ phone was sent after more than three months of no communication.
‘Bezos was provided a detailed briefing about the extent of the Saudi online campaign against him. The briefing was provided in 2 calls on his phone.
‘This text evinces an awareness of what Bezos had just been told.’
The message contained a photograph of a woman who closely resembled Sanchez, the Times reports.
Along with it, the prince included a joke: It is unclear if Bezos replied.
At the time, the National Enquirer had been trailing him and Lauren and were aware of their romance.
Bezos’ team has suggested in the past that the Saudi government and The Enquirer’s publisher, David Pecker, were in cahoots to take him down – a claim both the Saudis and Pecker vehemently deny.
After the text with the joke, Salman sent Bezos one more WhatsApp message, according to The New York Times.
That text was in February last year and was after Bezos’ divorce and affair with Sanchez made global news.
It said: ‘There is nothing against you or Amazon from me or Saudi Arabia.’
Again, it not known if Bezos replied.
Saudi Arabia has called the allegations that it hacked the billionaire’s phone ‘absurd’ and ‘silly’.
American Media Inc, the Enquirer’s publisher, has also denied any wrongdoing in its reporting of the Bezos/Sanchez affair.
Bezos issued strongly worded statements after the story emerged alleging blackmail by AMI to quash the story.
In the end, he and his wife MacKenzie settled their divorce for a record-setting $36billion. His net worth is now an estimated $115.6billion.
Bezos and his wife MacKenzie divorced with the world’s most expensive settlement – $36billion – after his affair with Sanchez was exposed