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Thursday, February 20, 2020

UN experts link Saudi prince to hacking of Amazon chief’s phone

Bezos and Crown Prince Mohammed, the report said, exchanged phone numbers at a dinner in Los Angeles in April 2018. The crown prince initiated a messaging conversation with Bezos that same day over WhatsApp.

By: New York Times | Beirut | Published: January 23, 2020 3:39:54 am
Jeff Bezos close to losing title of world's richest person to Bill Gates The Saudi Embassy in Washington on Wednesday called the idea that the kingdom had hacked Bezos’ cellphone “absurd.”

Written by Ben Hubbard and Michael Schwirtz

A WhatsApp account belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have been used to hack into the cellphone of Jeff Bezos in an effort to “influence, if not silence” reporting on the kingdom by The Washington Post, two United Nations human rights experts said Wednesday.

Bezos, the billionaire chief executive officer of Amazon, who also owns The Post, received an encrypted video from the crown prince loaded with digital spyware that enabled surveillance of his cellphone starting in May 2018, the UN experts said in a statement.

The new allegations against Crown Prince Mohammed, whose rise to power in Saudi Arabia has been punctuated by a wide-ranging crackdown on dissidents at home and abroad, suggest that the kingdom’s hacking and social media attacks have hit a wider range of targets than was previously known.

In recent years, technology researchers and human rights groups have documented cases of operators who appear to be working for Saudi Arabia infiltrating the devices of well-known Saudi dissidents and manipulating social media in the kingdom to amplify voices praising Crown Prince Mohammed and drown out his critics.

But targeting the cellphone of an American citizen who is one of the world’s richest businessmen would mark a clear escalation.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington on Wednesday called the idea that the kingdom had hacked Bezos’ cellphone “absurd.”

The hacking is particularly sensitive because of Bezos’ ownership of The Post, which at the time it was done was publishing coverage critical of the kingdom and had taken on Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi writer, as a regular columnist. Khashoggi had fled Saudi Arabia for the United States and often criticized Crown Prince Mohammed in his columns.

Six months after the hack of Bezos’ phone, Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi agents inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to obtain papers needed to marry his Turkish fiancée. The CIA has concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed most likely ordered the murder.

Last year, Bezos accused American Media Inc., the tabloid publisher, of “extortion and blackmail” after it exposed an extramarital affair he was having and threatened to publish graphic photos if he did not publicly state that the reporting by The National Enquirer was not motivated by political concerns. While it remained unclear how The Enquirer had obtained Bezos’ photos, he suggested that the company was doing the bidding of Saudi Arabia.

In their statement Wednesday, the U.N. experts also accused Saudi Arabia of launching vast social media campaigns to tar the image of Bezos after the killing of Khashoggi.

“At a time when Saudi Arabia was supposedly investigating the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, and prosecuting those it deemed responsible, it was clandestinely waging a massive online campaign against Mr. Bezos and Amazon targeting him principally as the owner of The Washington Post,” the experts said.

The U.N. experts, Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, special rapporteur on freedom of expression, have both been involved in the investigation into Khashoggi’s murder. They based their assessment on a forensic investigation carried out at Bezos’ request.

The hacking of Bezos’ phone came at the start of a two-month period in mid-2018 when at least four Saudi dissidents living abroad reported having their devices hacked with technologies similar to that deployed on Bezos.

They included Omar Abdulaziz, a dissident in Canada with a large social media following; an unidentified researcher for Amnesty International; Yahya Assiri, who runs a human rights monitor in London; and Ghanem al-Masarir, who hosts a YouTube show from Britain that skewers the Saudi leadership.

The U.N. experts said that taken together, the cases pointed to “a pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents and those of broader strategic importance to the Saudi authorities.”

Al-Masarir, who said his two cellphones were hacked in June 2018, said by phone Wednesday that the kingdom used hacking as a low-cost way to keep an eye on people it disliked.

“It is a way to spy on you all the time without sending 1,000 people to follow you around,” he said. “Instead, they are in your phone and they hear you and see you and know who you are with.”

The Saudi Embassy in Washington, in denying responsibility for the hacking of Bezos’ phone, called for an investigation but did not say who should carry it out.

The statement on the hack by the U.N. experts adds to the pressure on Crown Prince Mohammed — essentially accusing him of new criminality at a time when the kingdom has sought to overcome the negative coverage of its military intervention in Yemen, its blockade of Qatar and the killing of Khashoggi.

The revelations also further complicate relations between the Saudi government and the Trump administration, which has stood by Crown Prince Mohammed despite an international outcry over Khashoggi’s death and the assessment by President Donald Trump’s own intelligence services that the crown prince was likely involved.

Trump has consistently stood by Crown Prince Mohammed and the kingdom as reliable Arab allies and buyers of U.S. weapons. Crown Prince Mohammed is also close with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and the two men chat frequently on WhatsApp, according to former White House officials.

The U.N. experts called on the United States and “other relevant authorities” to immediately open an investigation into the hack of Bezos’ phone, citing a pattern of similar surveillance of perceived critics of the Saudi government.

Their statement cited a 2019 forensic analysis of Bezos’ phone that assessed with “medium to high confidence” that his phone had been infiltrated May 1, 2018, via an MP4 video file sent from a WhatsApp account utilized personally by the Saudi crown prince. The report, which was reviewed by The New York Times, indicated that Bezos continued to receive messages from the crown prince’s WhatsApp account after Khashoggi’s death.

The report was carried out at Bezos’ request by business advisory firm FTI Consulting and given to the U.N. experts by Bezos’ associates for their assessment. Messages sent by the crown prince’s account throughout 2018 suggested that he had intimate knowledge of Bezos’ private life.

On Nov. 8, 2018, the report said, Bezos received a message from the account that included a single photo of a woman who strongly resembled Lauren Sanchez, with whom Bezos was having an affair that had not been made public. The photo was captioned, “Arguing with a woman is like reading the software license agreement. In the end you have to ignore everything and click I agree.”

At the time, Bezos and his wife were discussing a divorce, which would have been apparent to someone reading his text messages.

Bezos and Crown Prince Mohammed, the report said, exchanged phone numbers at a dinner in Los Angeles in April 2018. The crown prince initiated a messaging conversation with Bezos that same day over WhatsApp.

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