Jan 23, 2020

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

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.

Go deeper: Bezos tweets image from Khashoggi memorial amid MBS hacking allegations

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The Bezos hack's shockwaves

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

If Jeff Bezos' phone can be hacked, anyone's can.

Driving the news: Reports emerged this week alleging that Jeff Bezos's iPhone was compromised in 2018 after the Amazon founder and Washington Post owner received a video file in a WhatsApp message sent by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salam (MBS). The news sent tremors through Washington and Silicon Valley.

Go deeperArrowJan 24, 2020

Podcast: The hack heard round the world

The UN is calling for an immediate investigation into allegations that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ phone was hacked by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Dan digs in with Cyberscoop reporter Shannon Vavra.

Go deeper: This hack touches the highest levels of American power

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Khashoggi's fiancée to attend Trump's State of the Union

Hatice Cengiz speaks during an exclusive interview in the U.S. on May 18, 2019. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) announced Monday that he's taking researcher Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, as his guest to this week's State of the Union.

Driving the news: It's an attempt to press President Trump to step up action against Saudi Arabia for its role in his death. A CIA report concluded in November 2018 that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's killing. The prince denies doing so.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Feb 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy