UN human rights experts have called for an investigation into the hacking of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ phone via a WhatsApp account allegedly belonging to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
The calls for an investigation come after the Guardian revealed that a malicious file was sent to Bezos in May 2018, providing access to the iPhone of the Washington Post owner.
Following a “forensic analysis” of Bezos’ phone, the UN experts said they had “medium to high confidence” that a malicious video file sent from Mohammed bin Salman’s personal WhatsApp account was used to gain access.
“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,” said Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression.
On 2 October 2018 Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi officials at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Khashoggi had been a prominent critic of the Saudi government and following his assassination, the Washington Post continued to raise concerns about the Saudi regime in its reporting.
In a statement posted on Twitter, the Saudi Embassy called the phone-hacking allegations “absurd” and called for an investigation “so that we can have all the facts out”.
here we received a forensic analysis concluding with 'medium to high confidence' that the iphone of Jeff Bezos was compromised via malware sent in 2018 from WhatsApp acct of the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
— David Kaye (@davidakaye) January 22, 2020
Spectre of spyware hangs over Bezos hack
The UN experts said it was “likely” that spyware was used to hack the phone of the world’s richest man.
“This reported surveillance of Mr. Bezos, allegedly through software developed and marketed by a private company and transferred to a government without judicial control of its use, is, if true, a concrete example of the harms that result from the unconstrained marketing, sale and use of spyware,” said Kaye and Callamard, who were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.
The pair said they had based their conclusions on a report by private security company FTI Consulting.
The firm was hired by Bezos after the National Enquirer, a US gossip magazine, threatened to publish naked pictures of the Amazon founder unless he ceased investigations into the magazine’s parent company, American Media Inc.
Instead, Bezos wrote a blog post on Medium in which he published the threatening emails from the Enquirer.
In an op-ed for the Daily Beast in March 2019, Bezos’ head of security Gavin De Becker said his investigations led him to conclude “with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information”.
NSO Group denies its spyware was used
The UN statement said the “intrusion likely was undertaken through the use of a prominent spyware product identified in other Saudi surveillance cases, such as the NSO Group’s Pegasus-3 malware, a product widely reported to have been purchased and deployed by Saudi officials”.
The use of WhatsApp as a platform to enable NSO Group’s spyware is currently the subject of a lawsuit between the Israeli firm and Facebook, which owns WhatsApp.
In a statement to Verdict, an NSO spokesperson “unequivocally” denied its technology was used “in this instance”.
“We know this because of how our software works and our technology cannot be used on US phone numbers. Our products are only used to investigate terror and serious crime.
“Any suggestion that NSO is involved is defamatory and the company will take legal counsel to address this.”