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By Jared Malsin, Dustin Volz and Justin Scheck
Two United Nations officials called for further investigation into the alleged hacking of Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos' phone using a WhatsApp account associated with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, suggesting it was an attempt to influence news coverage of the kingdom.
The release by the U.N. of details from a forensic analysis of the alleged hack, which was commissioned by Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, threatened to renew tensions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials in October 2018.
"The circumstances and timing of the hacking and surveillance of Bezos also strengthen support for further investigation by U.S. and other relevant authorities of the allegations that the Crown Prince ordered, incited, or, at a minimum, was aware of planning for but failed to stop the mission that fatally targeted Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul," the officials said in a statement based on their review of the forensic analysis.
Agnes Callamard, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, its special rapporteur on freedom of expression, said the hacking took place in May 2018 and continued for months, citing the forensic analysis they reviewed but didn't commission.
"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," Ms. Callamard and Mr. Kaye said.
Saudi officials rejected the allegation. "The idea that the crown prince would hack Jeff Bezos' phone is absolutely silly," said Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan in a video posted on Twitter by his ministry on Wednesday.
The State Department didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the U.N.'s call to investigate.
A lawyer for Mr. Bezos, William Isaacson of the firm Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, declined to comment except to say Mr. Bezos is cooperating with investigations.
Mr. Khashoggi, a Post columnist, was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, an act the CIA has concluded was likely ordered by Prince Mohammed. The Saudi government has contested the findings.
In a lengthy blog post nearly a year ago, Mr. Bezos accused the publisher of the National Enquirer of trying to blackmail him by threatening to release embarrassing photos after the tabloid alleged he had engaged in an extramarital affair. Mr. Bezos suggested in the post that the photos of him may have been obtained through illicit means that involved connections between the National Enquirer's publisher, American Media Inc., and the Saudi government.
A month later, Gavin de Becker, a security consultant hired by Mr. Bezos, publicly alleged that investigators had determined "with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos' phone, and gained private information." But Mr. de Backer didn't provide forensic evidence and didn't directly implicate Prince Mohammed.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that Michael Sanchez, the brother of Mr. Bezos' lover Lauren Sanchez, sold the billionaire's secrets for $200,000 to American Media.
An October 2018 contract between Mr. Sanchez and American Media, publisher of the National Enquirer, gave the company exclusive rights to "certain information, photographs, and text messages documenting an affair between Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez."
Mr. Sanchez "warrants and represents that he has acquired Confidential Information lawfully," stated the contract, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Sanchez previously said he didn't want to "dignify" the Journal's reporting on the contract he struck. A spokesman for Mr. Bezos declined to comment at the time.
Lauren Sanchez didn't respond to requests for comment sent through an employee at her company and an Amazon spokesman.
Federal prosecutors have been investigating the National Enquirer's handling of a story it published about Mr. Bezos' affair with Ms. Sanchez that included racy texts, people familiar with the matter said.
The findings from the U.N. are based on a forensic audit Mr. Bezos commissioned from FTI Consulting, a Washington-based business advisory firm, according to people familiar with the matter. The company's cybersecurity unit concluded with "medium to high confidence" that Prince Mohammed's WhatsApp account was used to compromise the Washington Post owner's phone.
Ms. Callamard said the FTI investigation came to her attention several months ago. She had been investigating the relationship between phone hacking by Saudi Arabia and Mr. Khashoggi's murder when a person she met in the course of her work told her there was an "in-depth forensic study" in progress of Mr. Bezos' phone. Later someone brought her the FTI report.
A spokesman for FTI Consulting spokesman said all client work is confidential. "We do not comment on, confirm or deny client engagements or potential engagements," he said.
Ms. Callamard and another U.N. official had tech experts review the report; their conclusions "reinforced our confidence in the findings from FTI, and it reinforced the urgency we saw in bringing those allegations to the attention of Saudi Arabia and to the international community," she said.
Ms. Callamard said it remains unclear what company provided the software used to infiltrate Mr. Bezos' phone -- her report names Israeli-based firm NSO Group and a United Arabs Emirates-based company, Dark Matter, as possibilities -- and what data were pulled from Mr. Bezos' phone.
She said the saga began after Mr. Bezos and Prince Mohammed exchanged friendly WhatsApp messages after meeting in Los Angeles in 2018. The prince sent Mr. Bezos "a touristic video, like just some publicity for Saudi Arabia," she said. That video file, FTI concluded, was used to install the spyware.
Ms. Callamard said information that later came to Mr. Bezos from Prince Mohammed's phone in the aftermath of the possible hacking -- a photo resembling Ms. Sanchez and references to him having a conflict with a woman -- didn't prove that the prince had accessed hacked information. The photo wasn't of Ms. Sanchez, and the implications of conflict with a woman weren't specific to his divorce. "It's all implicit," she said.
The FBI is continuing to investigate the phone hack, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Bezos didn't want to provide his phone directly to the FBI, so FTI Consulting, where several former FBI officials work, conducted the investigation but stayed in close communication with law enforcement, the person said.
WhatsApp wasn't contacted by FTI Consulting during its investigation, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Mr. Bezos and Prince Mohammed exchanged phone numbers in April 2018 at a dinner, the U.N. said. According to the U.N. statement, the audit found that a massive exfiltration of data from Mr. Bezos' device began hours after receiving an encrypted video file nearly a month later from a WhatsApp account associated with Prince Mohammed.
The investigation determined with "reasonable certainty" that the video's downloader infected Mr. Bezos phone, according to a timeline the U.N. provided. The probe additionally found that the amount of data leaking from the phone surged by 29,156% after May 2018 and that the exfiltration continued undetected for months.
Prince Mohammed later sent messages to Mr. Bezos in November 2018 and February 2019 containing information about the executive's private life that wasn't publicly available at the time, according to the forensic report as described by the U.N. officials.
Companies that specialize in creating custom software for clients to hack phones have proliferated in recent years, as messaging services and computers have become harder to infiltrate due to strong encryption. While many of the firms say they cater to law enforcement and intelligence agencies that respect privacy and judicial process, security researchers have documented several cases in which such software has been used by governments in the Middle East and elsewhere to track human-rights advocates, journalists and political dissidents.
FTI's analysis of Mr. Bezos' phone, a copy of which was published Wednesday by Vice, said the apparent hack appeared similar to other known cases that leveraged malware built by companies such as NSO Group. In the past, WhatsApp has said NSO used a vulnerability in its video-calling service to infect phones, but it didn't connect the Israeli company to hacks via MP4 video files. Investigators said such MP4 files appeared to be the conduit through which Mr. Bezos' phone was compromised.
NSO unequivocally denied its technology was used to target Mr. Bezos. "We know this because of how our software works and our technology cannot be used on U.S. phone numbers," the company said, reiterating a denial it first made in April, after Mr. Bezos made the hack public.
NSO added that the targeting of Mr. Bezos put "a strain on the ability to use legitimate tools to fight serious crime and terror."
Facebook sued NSO Group late last year, alleging the company's spyware had been used in attempts to infect the phones of 1,400 WhatsApp users, including targets chosen by NSO's foreign-government clients. NSO Group disputed the allegations.
The U.N. experts also noted that Crown Prince's media adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, was involved in organizing an online campaign denouncing the Washington Post and calling for a boycott of Amazon.
Mr. Qahtani, who was sanctioned by the U.S. for his role in the Khashoggi killing, sought out spyware from NSO Group and one of its affiliates, which began providing the kingdom with surveillance tools in 2017 in a $55 million deal, The Wall Street Journal previously reported.
Saudi government spokesmen didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Saudi officials close to the crown prince said they were aware of a plan to hack the phone of Mr. Bezos, but not of any attempt to blackmail him. These officials said Mr. Qahtani was involved in the hacking effort as part of a broader intimidation campaign against Mr. Khashoggi, who was publishing opinion pieces in the Washington Post. It wasn't immediately clear how they were aware of plans to hack the phone of the Amazon founder.
Mr. Qahtani didn't respond to a message seeking comment on the matter.
Mr. Bezos once appeared to have a potentially lucrative relationship with the Saudi government. Amazon came close to striking a $1 billion deal to build three large data centers for its highly profitable Amazon Web Services unit in the country. Those discussions collapsed following the Mr. Khashoggi's murder.
"The Post's essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi is undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles," Mr. Bezos wrote in his blog post last year.
--Sebastian Herrera, Dov Leiber and Joe Palazzolo contributed to this article.
Write to Jared Malsin at email@example.com and Justin Scheck at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 22, 2020 14:34 ET (19:34 GMT)
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