The mogul and the Saudi prince: Taking stock of Bezos phone hack

The Saudis dismiss reports of the kingdom’s involvement in the suspected hack, but the UN wants the US to investigate.

Jeff Bezos
Bezos's personal security adviser had been counseled in February 2019 to have the phone at the centre of the suspected hack examined by an intelligence official who has not been named [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

United Nations human rights experts are asking the United States and others to investigate a suspected hack that may have siphoned data from the personal smartphone of Jeff Bezos – Amazon founder and owner of The Washington Post – and which may have involved Saudi Arabia.

UN investigators said they had received information suggesting spyware “such as the NSO Group’s Pegasus-3 malware” was installed on Bezos’s phone via a WhatsApp message from an account “utilized personally” by Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).   

But the forensic evidence the UN experts cite comes from an incomplete study of Bezos’s phone, raising multiple questions.

The White House on Thursday said its taking reports about the alleged hacking seriously.

Here’s a quick guide to what’s known, and what remains unknown, about the findings so far.

What happened to Bezos’s phone?

According to a cybersecurity firm run by a former Obama administration official, evidence on the phone suggests it was infected by spyware in May 2018 via a WhatsApp message from the account of MBS. That message included a video file that the firm’s investigators say likely contained malware.

Bezos’s personal security adviser had been counseled in February 2019 to have the phone examined by an intelligence official who has not been named. Bezos went public with the suspected hack shortly thereafter, saying the National Enquirer tabloid had threatened to publish his private messages and photos.

Are the forensic findings conclusive?

Not at all. Outside security researchers highlighted several issues with the forensics report by FTI Consulting, run by former Obama administration National Security Council cybersecurity official Anthony Ferrante.

For instance, the FTI report, dated November and obtained Wednesday by the Vice News site Motherboard, said researchers didn’t find any malware on the phone, nor any evidence that Bezos’s phone had surreptitiously communicated with known spyware command servers.

Further, an examination of the crucial root file system – where top-flight hackers often hide their malware – was still pending when the report was written. iPhone security expert Will Strafach, CEO of Guardian Firewall, said that if the FTI investigators didn’t look at the root file system, they didn’t do a thorough forensic exam.

“I think the UN intentions are good but the details really matter here and the public reporting falls short of any real firm smoking gun,” said Strafach.

Other security experts questioned the FTI team’s forensic chops, wondering on Twitter and in blog posts why it was unable to decrypt the software that would have delivered the malware payload along with the video file.

Alex Stamos, a cybersecurity expert at Stanford University, tweeted: “The funny thing is that it looks like FTI potentially has the murder weapon sitting right there, they just haven’t figured out how to test it.”

FTI’s Ferrante did not respond to emails and text messages seeking comment. The company said in a statement that all FTI’s work for clients is confidential and that FTI does not “comment on, confirm or deny client engagements”. Facebook said the outfit did not reach out to WhatsApp to request assistance with its probe.

Could hackers have erased all the evidence of intrusion?

Absolutely, said Strafach. Elite hackers plant malware that erases itself after surreptitiously sending sensitive data to command servers.

“It scoops up everything they want and removes itself so there’s no trace, no evidence,” he said. “Anyone who knows what they are doing … [is] going to cover up their tracks.”

Sophisticated mobile spyware – such as the package called Pegasus, made by the Israeli hacker-for-hire company NSO Group – is designed to bypass detection and mask its activity. Saudi Arabia is reported to have used Pegasus against dissidents and human rights activists within weeks of the suspected Bezos hack.

On Wednesday, NSO Group “unequivocally” denied that its technology was used in the Bezos hack.

Why is the United Nations involved?

One of the two UN officials seeking answers in the case, Agnes Callamard. focuses on extrajudicial killings and has already investigated the Saudi government’s role in the October 2018 murder in Turkey of Saudi critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The other, David Kaye, is the UN point person on free expression. He focuses on the growing and lawless use of malicious spyware to monitor and intimidate human-rights defenders and journalists.

Both are independent experts in the UN’s human rights arm, not employees of the international organisation.

Kaye said via text message that he received the FTI report in November.

Are other public figures at risk?

It’s difficult to say at the moment. Prince MBS has attended gatherings with numerous US entertainers, technology executives and sports-team owners.

Why isn’t the US government more involved?

A top US Justice Department official, Adam S. Hickey, would not say whether federal investigators were looking into the allegations. Trump has been reluctant to condemn the Saudi prince over the Khashoggi killing and often expresses satisfaction with the Saudi government’s purchases of US weapons.

Source: AP