Here’s What We Know About Saudi Arabia Allegedly Hacking Jeff Bezos’ Phone

Saudi Arabia calls a report that the Kingdom hacked Bezos "absurd," but the U.N. called the allegations credible and "gravely" concerning.
January 22, 2020, 1:39pm
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks during his news conference at the National Press Club in Washington
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The U.N. has said it is “gravely concerned” about a report that claims Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was behind a hack of Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’ phone and the theft of large amounts of his private data.

"The information we have received 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,” David Kaye, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for free expression, and Agnès Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial murders, said in a statement.

The pair were referring to a forensic analysis of Bezos’ phone, conducted by FTI Consulting, that concluded that an encrypted video message sent from an account used by the crown prince to Bezos was in fact malware that infected the Amazon CEO’s phone.

The scandal erupted on Tuesday, when the Guardian first reported the findings of the analysis, which found that a large amount of data was exfiltrated from the phone almost immediately after it was hacked — though it didn’t reveal what that data was.

The Financial Times, which claims to have seen the analysis, says FTI Consulting’s investigators have concluded with “medium to high confidence” that the Crown Prince’s account was used in the cyberattack.

Kaye and Callamard said the allegations backs up 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.”

They called on the U.S. authorities to immediately investigate the role played by the Crown Prince in targeting perceived opponents to the Saudi regime. They also called for a renewed investigation into the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"The circumstances and timing of the hacking and surveillance of Bezos also strengthen support for further investigation by U.S. and other relevant authorities of the allegations that the crown prince ordered, incited, or, at a minimum, was aware of planning for but failed to stop the mission that fatally targeted Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul,” the statement said.

Prior to the incident, Bezos and MBS, as the crown prince is commonly known, had exchanged some messages on WhatsApp after they had exchanged numbers at a dinner in LA during the Crown Prince’s tour of the U.S. in April of that year. But the video message, which contained an image of Saudi and Swedish flags overlaid with Arabic text, arrived out of the blue, the New York Times reports.

Prior to the U.N.’s statement, Saudi Arabia on Wednesday dismissed the hacking allegations as “absurd.”

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

READ: Saudi court absolves Crown Prince by sentencing 5 Khashoggi hitmen to death

The alleged hacking of Bezos’ phone came five months before the murder of Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October 2018.

The relationship between the Kingdom and Bezos soured early last year when the Washington Post owner alluded to Riyadh’s displeasure at his paper’s coverage of the murder of Khashoggi.

READ: Amazon's donation to Australia's bushfire recovery Is insulting

Bezos’ own security team said in early 2019 they were confident that the Saudi government had access to Bezos’ phone and the Kingdom was behind the leaking of sensitive personal text messages and pictures related to Bezos’ extramarital affair, which were subsequently published by the National Inquirer.

Saudi Arabia denied any links to the incident.

In the wake of Tuesday’s report in the Guardian, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) called the alleged breach “part of a growing trend” in a letter he sent to Bezos calling on the billionaire to provide Congress with as much technical detail as possible to help prevent similar attacks in the future.

Cover: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks during his news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Bezos announced the Climate Pledge, setting a goal to meet the Paris Agreement 10 years early. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)