Jan 23, 2020 - Technology

MBS' alleged Bezos phone hack touches the highest levels of American power

Illustration of Bezos and MBS

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Anadolu Agency/Getty Contributor, Michael Kovac/Getty Contributor

If it weren't for impeachment, the country's biggest story would be allegations that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) hacked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' phone.

Why it matters: This would be the nominal leader of an American ally spying on the head of one of America's largest companies, who doubles as the owner of one of America's most influential media outlets.

  • UN investigators concluded "with medium to high confidence" that MBS sent Bezos a video file via WhatsApp that included secret code developed by Israeli spy software maker NSO Group.
  • The result was a colossal, months-long data extraction, beginning when Jamal Khashoggi was still alive and writing critically about Saudi Arabia for the Bezos-owned Washington Post. Saudi Arabia strongly denies the allegation.
  • It was allegedly done via the same messaging app that MBS has reportedly used to communicate with top White House aide Jared Kushner. Oh, and Michael Flynn, former U.S. national security adviser, was once a paid advisor to Israel-based NSO Group.

Flashback: Facebook last October sued NSO Group, for allegedly providing tools that enabled this very sort of hack. Apple and Microsoft have co-invested, or pledged to co-invest, with the Saudi government in SoftBank Vision Fund.

Context: At the time of the alleged hack, NSO Group was owned by private equity firm Francisco Partners, whose investors include some of America's largest public and corporate pension funds.

  • One could forgive Francisco if somehow it didn't realize that NSO's technology could be used for nefarious purposes, except that it absolutely knew (at least by 2017, when it was revealed that NSO software was used by the Mexican government to spy on journalists and anti-corruption advocates).
  • Francisco, which also briefly employed Michael Flynn, yesterday continued its years-long practice of hiding behind "no comment" when it comes to NSO Group, which in early 2019 was sold back to the company's founders and European private equity firm Novalpina.

Yes, but: Again, the Saudis deny any involvement. And there are some unanswered technical questions from the leaked forensics report, including a lack of malware found on Bezos' phone and no certainty on where the extracted data went.

The bottom line: This incident, if verified, touches the highest levels of American power, both private and public. It's impossible to imagine that Twitter denials and buyout baron evasion will suffice.

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