World

UN experts call for investigation after Saudis linked to Jeff Bezos phone hack

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have been involved in a plot to hack the phone of Amazon's billionaire boss Jeff Bezos, United Nations experts say.

Phone hacked with tainted video sent from a WhatsApp account, report says

Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos talks during a ceremony near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the one-year anniversary of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's death. (Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have been involved in a plot to hack the phone of Amazon's billionaire boss Jeff Bezos, United Nations experts said on Wednesday.

The UN special rapporteurs, Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, said they had information pointing to the "possible involvement" of the prince in the alleged 2018 cyberattack. Saudi officials have dismissed the allegations as absurd.

Cybersecurity experts hired by Bezos, the world's richest man, concluded his phone was probably infiltrated by a video file sent from a WhatsApp account purportedly belonging to the prince in 2018, according to a person familiar with the matter.

They said the device began leaking massive amounts of data about a month afterward, the source said.

Callamard, the special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings, and Kaye, special rapporteur for free expression, said the allegation of Saudi involvement "demands immediate investigation by U.S. and other relevant authorities."

Outside experts consulted by the UN agreed that while the case was not airtight, the evidence was strong enough to warrant a fuller investigation.

But the UN said the case illustrated the dangers "from the unconstrained marketing, sale and use of spyware."

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is shown in late 2018 at a Riyadh investment conference. (Amr Nabil/The Associated Press)

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud dismissed the charges.

"I think 'absurd' is exactly the right word," he told Reuters in an interview in Davos. "The idea that the crown prince would hack Jeff Bezos's phone is absolutely silly."

The alleged cyberattack is said to have taken place months before the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a fierce critic of the Saudi government and a columnist for the Bezos-owned Washington Post.

"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," Callamard and Kaye said in their statement.

The special rapporteurs, who released their findings in a statement, report to the UN Human Rights Council, but they are independent watchdogs and not UN officials.

Their recommendations are not binding on countries, though are widely seen as carrying moral weight.

Leaked personal messages

They stopped short of identifying which specific technology might have been used in the alleged hack, but said software like that made by Israeli company NSO Group or Italian spyware maker Hacking Team could potentially have been deployed.

NSO denied its technology was used in the alleged hack.

"We know this because of how our software works and our technology cannot be used on U.S. phone numbers," it said. "Our products are only used to investigate terror and serious crime."

After a merger last year, Hacking Team is now part of Swiss-Italian cyber intelligence firm Memento Labs. Memento Labs's head, Paolo Lezzi, was not immediately available to comment but has previously said he has no knowledge of Hacking Team's earlier operations.

With respect to the Khashoggi killing, the crown prince said last year was carried out by rogue operatives and that he did not order it.

Callamard led a UN inquiry into the Khashoggi killing.

"The evidence points overwhelmingly — and, in fact, in only one direction — which is that the killing was the state killing," she told CBC News in December.

The Guardian newspaper first reported the crown prince's alleged involvement in the Bezos phone incident.

Listen: Callamard speaks to CBC about Khashoggi murder investigation

The sentencing of eight men for Jamal Khashoggi's murder is a "travesty of justice" because the people who masterminded the killing have walked free, says UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard. 6:59

The relationship between the Amazon chief executive and the Saudi government had soured since early last year after he alluded to Saudi Arabia's displeasure at the Washington Post's coverage of the murder of Khashoggi.

In a previous flashpoint, Bezos's security chief said last year that the Saudi government had gained access to the Amazon CEO's phone and leaked messages to U.S. tabloid the National Enquirer between Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, a former TV anchor who the newspaper said he was dating.

A month before, Bezos had accused the newspaper's owner of trying to blackmail him with the threat of publishing "intimate photos" he allegedly sent to Sanchez.

The Saudi government has denied having anything to do with the National Enquirer reporting.

Saudi Arabia's U.S. embassy dismissed the latest allegations.

"We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out," it said in a message posted on Twitter.

Amazon declined to comment.

With files from CBC News

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