A year after murdering and dismembering journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia’s charm offensive continues, according to multiple reports that Amazon founder—and Washington Post owner, where Khashoggi was a columnist—Jeff Bezos’s phone was hacked by malware embedded in a WhatsApp message from none other than the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself. That’s according to a forensic analysis of the tech mogul’s phone on Bezos’ behalf by FTI Consulting. The company reported that it had been able to determine with “medium to high confidence” that the breach was caused by the video file sent by a WhatsApp account belonging to MBS, after the Saudi leader exchanged numbers with Bezos in April 2018 at a dinner in Los Angeles.
MBS initiated a conversation via WhatsApp with Bezos following the dinner. Then, in May 2018, Bezos received an encrypted video file attachment from MBS’ account. The file had a preview image of Saudi and Swedish flags overlaid with Arabic text, according to the New York Times. It’s unclear whether Bezos opened the file, but within hours of receiving it “a massive and unauthorised exfiltration of data from Bezos’s phone began, continuing and escalating for months,” according to FTI Consulting.
The lack of Saudi subtlety is … perplexing? It would be like if Vladimir Putin had himself sent malware a file in 2016 to the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman that led to the election-altering hack of Democratic emails. Like, if it literally came from email@example.com or whatever. Is the Saudi leadership this brazen? This dumb? Both? Something else? In fairness, there can’t be a lot of sharpening of one’s wits in a country where the marketplace of ideas has only one stall—yours. A political vacuum that quashes dissent and enables the worst sycophantic impulses of the existentially spoiled royal family would certainly make it challenging to make informed decisions. The biggest problem appears to be that it leads to bad ideas—like committing international murders and hacking the wealthiest man in the world’s phone—seem a lot like good ideas.
But the bad ideas didn’t stop there, MBS’ WhatsApp then proceeded to follow up with Bezos intermittently with messages that very strongly hinted that it had access to Bezos’ private communications. “On Nov. 8, 2018, the report said, Mr. Bezos received a message from the account that included a single photo of a woman who strongly resembled Lauren Sanchez, with whom Mr. Bezos was having an affair that had not been made public. The photo was captioned, ‘Arguing with a woman is like reading the software license agreement. In the end you have to ignore everything and click I agree,’” according to the New York Times. “The second occasion, on Feb. 16 of last year, came two days after Mr. Bezos took part in phone conversations about the Saudis’ alleged online campaign against him. The message he received read, in part, that ‘there is nothing against you or Amazon from me or Saudi Arabia.’” To recap: That’s like robbing a bank, getting away with it, and then going back to open a savings account to deposit the loot.
The report fingering the Saudis also could resolve the question of how the National Enquirer, owned by Trump-friendly American Media Inc, came by personal messages and photos sent between Bezos and Sanchez. The tabloid published portions of the private and explicit material before, bizarrely, trying to extort Bezos using the threat of releasing more material unless Bezos publicly claimed that the National Enquirer wasn’t politically motivated in the trash it published in 2016, in particularly it hadn’t tried to boost Trump during the 2016 campaign. At the time, the thinking was Sanchez’s brother was the source of the leaked messages that found their way into the National Enquirer. Now, the most likely source of the information looks quite different.
Is this political espionage? Or corporate espionage? When it comes to Saudi, where the state and business apparatuses are thoroughly intertwined, it can get murky. The country’s sovereign wealth fund is invested in companies—like Uber—all over the world and Saudi Arabia was in talks with Amazon at the time of the hack about a billion-dollar deal to build three data centers. Saudi Arabia, for its part, denied the hacking allegation. “Saudi Arabia does not conduct illicit activities of this nature, nor does it condone them,” a Saudi official said. “We request the presentation of any supposed evidence and the disclosure of any company that examined any forensic evidence so that we can show it is demonstrably false.”