U.N. Urges Probe Of Reported Hacking Of Jeff Bezos' Phone By Saudi Arabia

Jan 22, 2020
Originally published on January 23, 2020 6:50 am

Updated at 1:18 p.m. ET

In 2018, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent a WhatsApp message to the world's richest man. That message was behind a high-profile hack of Jeff Bezos' phone, according to a report commissioned by the Amazon CEO and reviewed by United Nations human rights experts.

"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," the experts said in a news release on the incident. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia called reports of the incident "absurd' and denied that it was responsible for hacking the phone of Bezos, who heads Amazon, one of the world's most influential and powerful tech companies.

The experts — Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression — said they were "gravely concerned" and called for an "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."

Callamard and Kaye raised their concerns with the Saudi government in a letter sent last week through the Saudi permanent mission to the U.N. in Geneva, Kaye told NPR.

"We sent them a letter that says, this is the information we received. If it's true, it raises very serious concerns regarding very grave human rights violations. And we have some questions for you," he said.

He said they have not received a formal response.

The allegations raise the possibility that Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, was targeted by the Saudis months before the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi's death has been linked to the crown prince.

The U.N. experts said: "The circumstances and timing of the hacking and surveillance of Bezos also strengthen support for further investigation by US 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."

Saudi Arabia denied that it was behind the hacking of Bezos' phone and also called for an investigation.

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

Amazon and a lawyer for Bezos did not respond to requests for comment.

The U.N. experts have been investigating Khashoggi's death. They reviewed a forensic analysis of Bezos' iPhone, commissioned by Bezos' security team and conducted by the consulting firm FTI.

The FTI analysis found with "medium to high confidence" that the phone was hacked in May 2018, after Bezos received a video message from a WhatsApp account "utilized personally" by the Saudi crown prince, according to the U.N. experts.

Just hours after the message was received, "massive and (for Bezos' phone) unprecedented exfiltration of data from the phone began," they said.

The FTI analysis also found that the crown prince's WhatsApp account sent additional messages to Bezos in November 2018 and February 2019 that allegedly revealed "private and confidential information about Mr Bezos' personal life."

In February 2019, Bezos accused the parent company of the National Enquirer of extortion. He said American Media Inc. threatened to publish potentially embarrassing personal photos of him if he did not stop an investigation into how the tabloid obtained other private photos and texts of him and his girlfriend. American Media denied the accusation. The National Enquirer was subsequently sold to James Cohen, a magazine distributor.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Jeff Bezos is founder and CEO of Amazon, one of the most valuable tech companies in the world. He's also the owner of The Washington Post. He is the world's richest person. And yet his phone is still got hacked. A new report accuses Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of being behind that hack. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has the story. And we should note, Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: In 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent a WhatsApp message to Jeff Bezos. That message unleashed spyware into the Amazon CEO's phone. That's according to a forensic investigation of the phone, commissioned by Bezos. David Kaye reviewed the report. He's the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression.

DAVID KAYE: They had medium to high confidence that malware compromised the account of Jeff Bezos and that that malware was sent from a WhatsApp account that belonged to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

BOND: Kaye and another U.N. human rights expert link the phone hacking to the Saudi regime's efforts to stifle critical reporting about Saudi Arabia by The Washington Post, which Bezos owns. In April 2018, Bezos met the crown prince at a dinner in Los Angeles and exchanged phone numbers. A month later, the CEO received an encrypted video in a WhatsApp message from the prince's account. Hours after receiving the video, Bezos' phone started sending out large amounts of data, according to the forensic report.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Saudi Arabia called the report absurd and denied it was responsible for hacking Bezos' phone. But the U.N.'s Kaye says the report raises grave concerns.

KAYE: The nature of the allegations and everything put together is, you know, certainly enough to raise these kinds of concerns and demand a response, you know, by the Saudis and independent investigation.

BOND: Five months after Bezos' phone was hacked, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a fierce critic of the Saudi regime, was murdered. His death has been linked to the crown prince. Saudi Arabia has been accused of using digital spyware to go after critics.

MIKE CHAPPLE: So the attack against Jeff Bezos is consistent with a pattern of high-tech surveillance efforts that were waged in support of Saudi interests.

BOND: Mike Chapple is a former computer scientist at the National Security Agency who now teaches at the University of Notre Dame. In November, two former Twitter employees were charged by U.S. prosecutors with spying on dissidents' accounts for the Saudi government. Chapple and other security experts caution that the public needs more information to understand exactly what happened to Jeff Bezos. Meanwhile, Bezos himself has not commented on the latest twist in the hacking saga. On Wednesday, he tweeted a picture of himself at a memorial for Jamal Khashoggi with the hashtag Jamal.

Shannon Bond, NPR News, San Francisco.

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