Yesterday afternoon, the Guardian broke the news that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had been hacked. Both the extent to which Bezos was compromised and the alleged perpetrator are, to understate it, substantial. According to multiple reports, Bezos’s iPhone X was compromised after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (or someone using his account) sent him a malware-laden video file over WhatsApp.
The level to which the information on Bezos’s phone was compromised is kind of mind-boggling. Since the news broke, Vice has obtained the November 2019 report outlining how the attack on Bezos was carried out and how much data was stolen. The pair first connected and exchanged numbers at a dinner in Los Angeles in April 2018 — Bezos opened with the very personable message, “Hello MBS.”
According to the report, put together by Anthony Ferrante of FTI Consulting, Bezos received the malicious video file from MBS on May 1, 2018. Following the installation of the malware on Bezos’s phone, “egress on the device immediately jumped by approximately 29,000 percent.” That means the amount of data being uploaded from Bezos’s phone (to … somewhere …) spiked. In the six months prior to the video file, his phone transmitted about 430 KB per day, but “within hours of the WhatsApp video, egress jumped to 126 MB.”
What high-flown and important conversations were these two men having over WhatsApp? One message, sent on November 8, 2018, contained one of those sexist boomer jokes about how women are always yappin’. The caption of the image reads “Arguing with a woman is like reading the Software License Agreement. In the end you have to ignore everything and click I agree.” What a fun joke to send to a technology entrepreneur who built his world-bending fortune by setting onerous and unfair terms for everyone from his users to his vendors to his employees!
The caption appears alongside a picture of Russian model Vika Levina. The report notes that the photo resembles Lauren Sanchez, whom Bezos was having an affair with at the time, though that is likely a coincidence. The macro is publicly available online and wasn’t custom-made for Bezos.
A more clear sign that may indicate that MBS had information about what Bezos was doing on his phone came later. According to the report, Bezos was briefed on the infiltration on February 14, 2019 in a couple of calls placed to his phone. A couple of days later, on February 16, MBS sent Bezos the following message: “Jeff all what you hear or told to it’s not true and it’s matter of time tell you know the truth, there is nothing against you or amazon from me or Saudi Arabia.” The next day, Bezos’s security chief Gavin de Becker was advised by an intel expert familiar with Saudi Arabia to perform a forensic analysis of Bezos’s iPhone.
FTI’s report hypothesizes that Bezos’s iPhone was compromised with tools procured by Saud al-Qahtani, a close friend of MBS and the head of the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones. Crucially, al-Qahtani also played a role in the state-sponsored killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Bezos-owned Washington Post who was critical of the KSA regime.
Bezos, in addition to being one of the wealthiest men in the world, also heads up a multinational company that has the power to move markets, runs a robust network of vital internet infrastructure (Amazon Web Services), and owns one of the most influential news outlets in America. MBS is not the only person alleged to have dirt on him. In early February of last year (just days before the security audit of the phone began), Bezos announced that he was being extorted by David Pecker, who had acquired dick pics that Bezos had sent to Lauren Sanchez.
Bezos has also been in a prolonged feud with President Donald Trump, who frequently invokes Bezos’s ownership of the Post as evidence of bias, and who steered a lucrative military contract away from Amazon into the hands of Microsoft. Trump has also complained that Amazon’s delivery agreement with the U.S. Post Office is unfair.
Aside from the growing evidence that Bezos’s private information was successfully compromised by powerful entities, the way in which MBS allegedly did so is concerning. MBS has also reportedly used WhatsApp to communicate with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House official with a security clearance. It is very much in the realm of possibility that Saudi Arabia has sensitive information about the executive branch as well.
The United Nations has called for an investigation into the allegations against MBS. In a statement today, special rapporteurs Agnès Callamard and David Kaye said they were “gravely concerned” by 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.”