The iPhone of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, was reportedly hacked in May 2018 after receiving a WhatsApp message from the personal account of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Guardian newspaper revealed today.
Citing unnamed sources familiar with digital forensic analysis of the breach, the newspaper claimed that a massive amount of data was exfiltrated from Bezos’s phone within hours after he received a malicious video file from the Saudi prince.
The mysterious file was sent when crown prince Salman and Bezos were having a friendly WhatsApp conversation, and it’s ‘highly probable’ that it exploited an undisclosed zero-day vulnerability of WhatsApp messenger to install malware on Bezos’s iPhone.
“The forensic analysis found that within hours of receipt of the MP4 video file from the Crown Prince’s account, massive and (for Bezos’ phone) unprecedented exfiltration of data from the phone began, increasing data egress suddenly by 29,156 per cent to 126 MB. Data spiking then continued undetected over some months and at rates as much as 106,032,045 per cent (4.6 GB) higher than the pre-video data egress baseline for Mr. Bezos’ phone of 430KB,” the report says.
The Guardian said it didn’t know what data was extracted from the phone, but the hack happened almost 9 months before an American tabloid newspaper published intimate photos and messages sent by Bezos, disclosing his extramarital affair that leads to a divorce from his wife of 25 years.
Though the tabloid newspaper claimed it was tipped off about the affair by the estranged brother of Bezos’s secret girlfriend, the new evidence suggests, with moderately high confidence, that the leak is linked to the hack of Bezos’s phone.
At that time, Jeff Bezos pointed out the business relationship between the tabloid newspaper and Saudi Arabia and also hinted that how furious the Saudis were with him for the Washington Post’s coverage of the murder of its journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a strong critic of the Kingdom’s rulers.
Since Bezos also owns the Washington Post and the CIA claimed that Salman ordered Khashoggi’s assassination, the relationship between the Amazon chief executive and the Saudi government soured immediately after that.
To be noted, Jamal Khashoggi was killed in October 2018, almost five months after the alleged hack of the Bezos’s iPhone.
In one of the unlikely scenarios, it’s also possible that someone else hacked into Salman’s phone or his WhatsApp account and orchestrated the cyberattack against Bezos by sending that malicious video file on behalf of the crown prince.
However, the new revelation perfectly aligns with the timeline of important events, as follows:
- April 2018: Salman and Bezos exchanged numbers,
- May 2018: Salman hacked into the Bezos’ phone,
- October 2018: Jamal Khashoggi was murdered,
- November 2018: Washington Post linked Jamal Khashoggi murder to Saudi regime,
- January 2019: American tabloid exposed Bezos’ affair based on leaked data.
Meanwhile, experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council also reviewed the forensic report and assessed that the hack was likely carried out using Pegasus mobile hacking tool.
Pegasus, developed by Israeli surveillance vendor The NSO Group, is a powerful mobile spyware that is widely known for being misused by the Saudi government to spy on Saudi dissidents, including Jamal Khashoggi.
“The hacking of Mr. Bezos’ phone occurred during a period, May-June 2018, in which the phones of two close associates of Jamal Khashoggi, Yahya Assiri and Omar Abdulaziz, were also hacked, allegedly using the Pegasus malware,” the Human Rights Council said.
“According to the forensic analysis, following the hacking of Mr. Bezos’ phone, the Crown Prince sent WhatsApp messages to Mr. Bezos, in November 2018 and February 2019, in which he allegedly revealed private and confidential information about Mr. Bezos’ personal life that was not available from public sources.”
The NSO group recently made headlines worldwide when Google experts caught the surveillance vendor exploiting a WhatsApp zero-day vulnerability to install spyware on smartphones belonging to several human rights activists and journalists.
Last November, two former employees of Twitter were also charged with spying on thousands of Twitter users on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government, likely with the purpose of unmasking the identity of dissidents.
The Saudi Arabia’s U.S. Embassy, in a tweet, dismissed the Guardian report by calling it “absurd” and asked for an investigation.
“Recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind the hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’ phone are absurd. We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out,” The Saudi embassy said.
However, at the time of writing, it’s unclear whether the alleged hack of Bezos’s phone also leaked any sensitive corporate information related to Amazon.