Analysis Ties Hacking of Bezos’ Phone to Saudi Leader’s Account


SEATTLE — A forensic analysis of Jeff Bezos’ cellphone found with “medium to high confidence” that the Amazon chief’s device was hacked after he received a video from a WhatsApp account reportedly belonging to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

After Mr. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, got the video over the WhatsApp messaging platform in 2018, his phone began sending unusually large volumes of data, according to a report summing up investigators’ findings, which was reviewed by The New York Times.

The investigators believed Prince Mohammed was used as a conduit because the message would not raise suspicions if it came from him, said a person familiar with the investigation, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

According to the report, Mr. Bezos received a message from the crown prince’s account in late 2018 that suggested that the prince had intimate knowledge of Mr. Bezos’ private life.

The forensics investigation was completed on behalf of Mr. Bezos by Anthony Ferrante at the business advisory firm FTI Consulting. Mr. Ferrante declined to comment through a FTI spokesman.

After the findings were reported by The Guardian and The Financial Times, the Saudi Embassy denied that the Saudi government was involved.

“Recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’ phone are absurd,” the Saudi Embassy said on Twitter. “We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out.”

Mr. Bezos’ security consultant, Gavin de Becker, had previously accused the Saudi government of hacking Mr. Bezos’ phone, saying the Saudi authorities targeted him because he owned The Washington Post. The Post has aggressively reported on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, one of its columnists, who was a critic of the Saudi government. The Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing.

According to FTI’s report, Mr. Bezos and Prince Mohammed exchanged phone numbers at a dinner in Los Angeles in April 2018. The crown prince initiated a messaging conversation with Mr. Bezos that same day over WhatsApp.

About a month later, Mr. Bezos received an unexpected message from the crown prince that contained a video attachment, the report said.

The report did not say whether Mr. Bezos opened the video attachment, which had an image of Saudi and Swedish flags overlaid with Arabic text. But immediately after he received the file, the amount of data exiting his phone increased almost three hundredfold, according to the investigators’ analysis of Mr. Bezos’s data.

On two later occasions, according to the report, the crown prince appeared to send Mr. Bezos messages that suggested he had knowledge of the tech mogul’s private communications.

On Nov. 8, 2018, the report said, Mr. Bezos received a message from the account that included a single photo of a woman who strongly resembled Lauren Sanchez, with whom Mr. 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, Mr. Bezos and his wife were discussing a divorce, which would have been apparent to someone reading his text messages.

The second occasion, on Feb. 16 of last year, came two days after Mr. Bezos took part in phone conversations about the Saudis’ alleged online campaign against him. The message he received read, in part, that “there is nothing against you or Amazon from me or Saudi Arabia.”

The report concluded that advanced mobile spyware could have been used to compromise Mr. Bezos’ phone.

Two United Nations experts plan to release a public statement Wednesday morning “addressing serious allegations” that Mr. Bezos was hacked by receiving a WhatsApp message “reportedly from an account belonging to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia,” one of the experts, Agnes Callamard, said in an email.

Ms. Callamard, a specialist in extrajudicial killings, has been investigating Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, and David Kaye, an expert in human rights law, has been gathering information about violations of freedom of the press.

In its statement, the United Nations plans to say that it is raising concerns over the hacking of Mr. Bezos’s phone directly with the Saudi government, said a person familiar with the statement. The United Nations did not conduct its own investigation into the hack and is basing its statement on the FTI report, the person said.

The United Nations began looking into the situation in June 2019 when someone close to Mr. Bezos shared the forensic analysis with it, the person added.

Amazon and Mr. de Becker declined to comment. William Isaacson, Mr. Bezos’ lawyer at Boies Schiller Flexner, declined to comment beyond saying that Mr. Bezos was cooperating with continuing investigations.

The questions about who has had access to Mr. Bezos’ phone erupted a year ago, after The National Enquirer reported that the tech executive was romantically involved with Ms. Sanchez, a former TV anchor. At the time, The Enquirer published photos of the couple together, as well as intimate text messages.

Mr. Bezos later published emails from American Media, the parent company of The National Enquirer, which he said amounted to “extortion and blackmail.” He suggested that the leaks of photos and details of his private life could have been politically motivated to harm him because of his ownership of The Post.

In March, Mr. de Becker accused the Saudi government of hacking Mr. Bezos’s phone. In an opinion article in The Daily Beast, Mr. de Becker wrote that his “investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence” that the Saudis got private information from Mr. Bezos’ phone and that he turned the evidence they had uncovered over to law enforcement authorities.

Mr. de Becker did not detail specific evidence they uncovered, nor did he detail whether the leaked information was published by The Enquirer. American Media denied any Saudi involvement, saying Ms. Sanchez’s brother was the tabloid’s sole source.

Karen Weise reported from Seattle, Matthew Rosenberg from Washington and Sheera Frenkel from San Francisco. Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.


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