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WhatsApp message with malicious file was how Jeff Bezos’ phone got hacked by Saudi Arabia


By: Tech Desk | New Delhi |

Updated: January 22, 2020 11:17:58 am

Amazon chief Jeff Bezos interacts with Amazon Global Senior Vice President Amit Agarwal during Amazon SMBhav summit, at Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, Wednesday, January, 15, 2020. (PTI Photo)

A WhatsApp message with a malicious file attached to it was how the Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos’ phone was hacked in 2018, according to a new report published in The Guardian. More importantly, the message was sent by the Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman to Bezos.

Bezos is also the owner of the Washington Post, and the hacking took place in May 2018. Washington Post‘s critical coverage of Saudi Arabia and its crown prince by its late columnist Jamal Khashoggi had irked the kingdom and likely the reason behind this hacking.

According to the report, the WhatsApp message was a video file, which contained a malicious file as part of it, and was sent on May 1. The malware once installed on the phone then proceeded to extract a large amount of data from Bezos’ phone within hours, is what analysis showed.

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Bloomberg also reported on the issue after the Guardian, noting that investigators found digital evidence suggesting it contained a code, which did lead to the hacking and data being stolen. There’s still an ongoing probe into the hacking of Bezos’ phone. The Bloomberg report quoting another source saying, “a forensic analysis showed with moderately high confidence that a WhatsApp account used by bin Salman was involved.

Saudi Arabia on its part has denied any role in the hacking after the report emerged. The Saudi Arabia US embassy has issued a statement calling the media report that the kingdom was responsible for hacking Bezos’ phone as absurd. “We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out,” adds the statement.

Jeff Bezos blackmail over affair in 2019

The hacking revelations need to be seen in context of the events of 2019. In February, 2019 Bezos had written an blog post calling out how he was blackmailed by the tabloid ‘The National Enquirer owned by the American Media, Inc (AMI). David Pecker, CEO of AMI had emailed Bezos threatening to expose his private messages and photos, unless Washington Post stopped its investigation into the Saudi links between the National Enquirer.

In January 2019, the National Enquirer had already published intimate details of Jeff Bezos’ affair with Lauren Sanchez, who is a former television anchor. The reports included intimate text messages sent by Bezos.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and his girlfriend TV presenter Lauren Sanchez pose in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, January 21, 2020. (Image source: Reuters)

The Amazon CEO though made it clear he was not going to stand for the blackmail threats in his blog post. “Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can,” he wrote.

Bezos had also revealed at the time that he had already hired investigators to understand how those private texts were access by the tabloid. Gavin de Becker was hired as a security consultant by Bezos, and this was also revealed in the blog post.

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De Becker in March 2019 had written a detailed post in The Daily Beast highlighting the role of the Saudi Arabian government and hinting at a possible hacking of Bezos’ phone. In his post, he said their “investigations and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information.” He also added it was unclear if AMI was aware of these details.

He had pointed out that AMI in its eight page contract to Bezos and de Becker wanted them to say that the investigation had not revealed “any form of electronic eavesdropping or hacking in their news-gathering process.”

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Updated: January 22, 2020 — 6:14 am

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