The phone of Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos was hacked after receiving a file sent from an account used by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, United Nations experts said Wednesday.
The two experts called for an "immediate investigation" by the United States into information that suggests that Bezos' phone was likely hacked after he received an MP4 video file sent from the Saudi prince's WhatsApp account in May 2018, after the two exchanged phone numbers at a dinner in California.
The file was sent to Bezos' phone five months before Saudi critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi government agents inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October. At the time, the crown prince was being widely hailed for ushering in major social reforms to the kingdom, but Khashoggi was writing columns in the Post that highlighted the darker side of the crown prince's simultaneous clampdown on dissent.
The Post was harshly critical of the Saudi government after Khashoggi's killing and demanded accountability in a highly public campaign that ran in the paper for weeks after his death.
"The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post's reporting on Saudi Arabia," the independent U.N. experts said.
They said that at a time when Saudi Arabia was "supposedly investigating the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, and prosecuting those it deemed responsible, it was clandestinely waging a massive online campaign against Mr. Bezos and Amazon targeting him principally as the owner of The Washington Post."
The UN experts published their statement after reviewing a full report conducted by a team of investigators hired by Bezos. The experts said they reviewed the 2019 digital forensic analysis of Bezos' iPhone, which was made available to them as U.N. special rapporteurs. The independent experts are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.
The digital forensic investigation that was commissioned by Bezos and shared with the UN experts assessed with "medium to high confidence" that his phone was infiltrated on May 1, 2018, via the MP4 video file sent from the crown prince's WhatsApp account.
The experts said that records showed that within hours of receiving the video from the crown prince's account, there was "an anomalous and extreme change in phone behavior" with enormous amounts of data being transmitted and exfiltrated from the phone, undetected, for several months.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, called the hacking allegations "absolutely illegitimate."
"There was no information in there that's relevant. There was no substantiation, there was no evidence," he told an Associated Press reporter at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "It was purely conjecture, and if there is real evidence, we look forward to seeing it."
Saudi Arabia is already under investigation in the US for another case involving Twitter. US prosecutors in California allege that the Saudi government, frustrated by growing criticism of its leaders and policies on social media, recruited two Twitter employees to gather confidential personal information on thousands of accounts that included prominent opponents.
Bezos went public last February after allegedly being shaken down by the US tabloid National Enquirer, which he said threatened to expose a "below-the-belt" selfie he'd taken and other private messages and pictures he'd exchanged with a woman he was dating while he was still married.
Bezos wrote in a lengthy piece for the Medium that rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, "I've decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten." While he did not accuse Saudi Arabia's crown prince of being behind the hacking of his phone, he noted that the owner of the National Enquirer had been investigated for various actions taken on behalf of the Saudi government.
Bezos' chief investigator, Gavin De Becker, went further, saying in a published report last March that the investigation found the Saudis obtained the private data of Bezos. His piece for The Daily Beast outlined in detail what he said was the crown prince's close relationship with the chairman of AMI, David Pecker, which is the parent company of the National Enquirer.
At the time of his dealings with the crown prince, Bezos had been looking for a site in the Middle East to expand Amazon's cloud services. The billionaire technology mogul had visited Saudi Arabia in 2016 to meet with the crown prince before meeting with him again during the prince's tour of the United States in 2018. The company ultimately selected the island nation of Bahrain off the coast of Saudi Arabia, which opened in July.
Amazon has also expanded into the Middle East with its 2017 purchase of e-commerce website Souq.com, which is a competitor of Noon.com, a platform that launched that same year and is heavily funded by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund that is overseen by the crown prince.
Another senior Saudi official in Riyadh, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, told the AP that the kingdom finds it "distressing" that these claims are being made "devoid of evidence or fact.
"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not conduct illicit activities of this nature, nor does it condone them," the official said.
The Financial Times, which has seen the forensic report that was done by FTI Consulting., said the investigation "does not claim to have conclusive evidence," and "could not ascertain what alleged spyware was used."