U.N. officials press Saudi Arabia on hack of Jeff Bezos's phone

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington in 2019. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

WASHINGTON — United Nations officials have asked the government of Saudi Arabia to explain the apparent hack of a cellphone belonging to Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, a source familiar with the matter told Yahoo News.

On Wednesday, special rapporteurs, investigators working for the U.N., will release a statement announcing the findings of a forensic investigation conducted by an outside firm that concludes the hack of Bezos’s phone was likely the result of a Saudi scheme. Naked photos sent by Bezos to a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair were likely obtained in the hack. While the findings of the investigation aren’t conclusive, the U.N. officials are concerned that the attack on privacy is part of a broader campaign to intimidate critics of Saudi Arabia.

Shortly after the October 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Bezos skipped a planned appearance at an investment conference that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also referred to as “MBS”) was hosting in Saudi Arabia. A few months later, Bezos announced that the National Enquirer had obtained naked pictures of him. While news reports at the time suggested that Michael Sanchez, the brother of the woman with whom Bezos was having an affair, may have been responsible, last March Bezos’s longtime security consultant, Gavin de Becker, announced he believed the Saudis were responsible for the hack. 

U.N. Special Rapporteurs Agnes Callamard and David Kaye have sent an “allegation letter” to the Saudi ambassador in Geneva, the source said, asking questions about the Bezos hack, which U.N. officials believe to be significant in part because “it connects to both the killing [of Khashoggi] and the use of spyware in general,” the source added.  

Spyware similar to the type that is believed to have been used to infect Bezos’s phone was previously deployed by the Saudis to hack into the phone of Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who is suing NSO Group, the Israeli maker of the Pegasus spyware. Abdulaziz has alleged that the Saudis hacked into his phone using Pegasus weeks before Khashoggi was killed. Abdulaziz had been working with Khashoggi on sensitive projects targeting Saudi disinformation campaigns in the months before the killing. 

The Saudi government denies the allegations.

“Recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’ phone are absurd,” the Saudi Embassy in Washington said in a Tuesday tweet. “We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out.”

The forensic investigation of the Bezos hack was conducted by FTI Consulting’s Anthony Ferrante, who declined to comment for this article. But the source familiar with the matter said bin Salman and Bezos had dinner in Los Angeles and “exchanged numbers” during the crown prince’s tour of the U.S. in March 2018. A video clip was sent to Bezos’s phone by a WhatsApp number linked to bin Salman, the source said, adding that Ferrante determined with a “medium to high degree of confidence” that the Saudis are behind the Bezos hack. It is unclear who paid Ferrante to investigate.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/Pool/AFP)

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is suing NSO for having “violated both U.S. and California laws as well as the WhatsApp Terms of Service, which prohibit this type of abuse,” according to a statement from WhatsApp. Last May, WhatsApp discovered a security flaw that allowed hackers to infect victims’ phones with Pegasus spyware even when they didn’t click on a link. 

The Facebook allegations bolster the claim that the Saudis are behind the hack of Bezos’s phone, the source said. “The allegation is that a video file was sent from an account controlled by, at least partially controlled by, MBS and was received by the intended recipient, Bezos,” the source said. “If you line it up with what Facebook alleged in October and November of this past year there was an exploit that didn’t require ... the target to actually click on the link if it was sent by WhatsApp.”

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