The personal WhatsApp account of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was allegedly used to hack the cellphone of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in response to critical reporting on the kingdom by the Washington Post, two United Nations human rights experts said.
The experts said that a 2019 forensic analysis of Bezos' phone — conducted by a cybersecurity expert at FTI Consulting — assessed with “medium to high confidence” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deployed digital spyware to surveil Bezos’ iPhone in response to reporting by the Washington Post, which he owns, and the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi Arabian journalist for the paper.
"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,” Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, the two UN special rapporteurs, said in a statement Wednesday.
The experts called for an investigation by the US and other authorities into the allegations that Bezos' iPhone was “infiltrated” in May 2018 via an MP4 video file “sent from a WhatsApp account utilized personally by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”
“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,” the statement added.
The Saudi embassy in Washington denied the allegations in a tweet, saying media reports suggesting the kingdom hacked Bezos’ phone were "absurd."
Amazon did not return a request for comment.
Bezos had attended a small dinner in Los Angeles with the crown prince on April 4, 2018, a day after the Post published Khashoggi’s column that was critical of the prince, according to a timeline of the events released by the experts.
During the dinner, Bezos and Mohammed exchanged phone numbers tied to their WhatsApp accounts. A month later, on May 1, 2018, Bezos received an encrypted video file from the crown prince’s WhatsApp account that allegedly infected Bezos’ phone with malicious code. Within hours of receiving the video file on WhatsApp, a “massive” and “unprecedented” amount of data was extracted from Bezos’ phone, the experts said.
The video file that the crown prince apparently sent Bezos “appears to be an Arabic language promotional film about telecommunications” showing an image of the Saudi Arabian and Swedish flags, according to the report by FTI Consulting and obtained by Motherboard.
The report said that the analysis did not find any "embedded malicious code" in the video file, but added that the video was delivered via an encrypted downloader the contents of which could not be decrypted. However, there was an "extreme change in behavior" of Bezos' phone within hours of the video's delivery.
The report also contained a screenshot of the April 2018 WhatsApp exchange between Bezos and the prince, in which Bezos said, “Hello MBS,” to which he got a reply saying, “Hello, i saved the number Mohammad bin Salman.”
Six months after the hack, Bezos received a photograph with a “sardonic caption” from the crown prince’s WhatsApp account, according to the UN experts' timeline. The photo was of a woman who resembled the woman Bezos was having an affair with, months before their extramarital relationship was publicly revealed. Around the same time, a monthslong online campaign in Saudi Arabia targeted Bezos and Amazon after the Post began covering the murder of Khashoggi.
In a Medium post last year, Bezos suggested a connection between the Saudi government and the pro-Trump tabloid National Enquirer’s access to embarrassing photos of him. The tabloid had previously published intimate text messages between Bezos and his girlfriend to expose the affair.
A security expert hired by Bezos also wrote in the Daily Beast that investigators had “concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information.”