Bezos phone breach escalates fears over Saudi hacking

The alleged hacking of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s phone by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has alarmed members of Congress and experts, raising fresh concerns about the kingdom’s cyberspace powers.

It is also bringing new questions over the U.S. security relationship with the Saudis, a relationship that has already been strained by the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

“If true, those are genuinely stunning allegations,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Thursday regarding the hack.

“The Saudi Kingdom has enjoyed a close security relationship with the United States for decades. Under the leadership of [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman], the killing of an American resident journalist, his dismembering in a Turkish consulate, is probably the most grave challenge to that relationship we’ve had in a long time,” Coons added. “If true, these allegations would present a fundamental challenge to the continuation of that relationship.”

The Guardian first reported this week that Bezos, the owner of the Post, had his phone hacked after opening a message from the Saudi crown prince on WhatsApp.

The United Nations (UN) upped the ante Wednesday, with two top officials calling for an investigation into the incident, suggesting that Bezos was targeted in an effort to try and silence the Washington Post from covering the killing of Khashoggi. Intelligence agencies say the killing was carried out at the direction of bin Salman.

“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, said in a joint statement on Wednesday. 

Both the Guardian and UN appear to be relying on a report from the firm FTI Consulting, which was shared publicly by Vice News. 

Analysts from the firm searched Bezos’ phone and found that it had been compromised using tools potentially tied to Saud al Qahtani, a close friend of bin Salman and the former president and chairman of the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming, and Drones. Al Qahtani is among the 16 individuals the State Department has accused of being involved in Khashoggi’s killing.

According to the analysis, after Bezos opened a video from bin Salman’s account, the amount of data leaving his device significantly spiked. Researchers claim bin Salman then began sending messages to Bezos containing private information about the Amazon CEO which was not publicly known.

Saudi Arabia has denied the allegation.

“Recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’ phone are absurd,” the Saudi embassy in the U.S. tweeted Tuesday. “We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out.”

Amazon did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment, but Bezos on Wednesday tweeted a photo with the caption “#Jamal” that showed Bezos with Khashoggi’s fiancé. 

The CIA ultimately concluded the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s killing and the U.S. sanctioned certain individuals tied to the incident. Saudi Arabia has denied the crown prince had any knowledge of the plot.

President Trump has repeatedly said he accepts the prince’s denials and has cited the important economic relationship between the U.S. and the kingdom, a major purchaser of American arms and a key oil producer.

But on Capitol Hill, there has been anger at the Saudis over the killing, tensions which are certain to intensify over the hack.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Thursday said the allegations the Saudis hacked Bezos were troubling.

“I think if true it’s remarkably serious,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Thursday. “There are intel ramifications when we think about Americans prominent or otherwise, campaigns prominent or otherwise, that are subject to foreign based attacks.”

And lawmakers raised concerns about the capabilities of Saudi Arabia in cyberspace.

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that “it’s just a different world” when it comes to cyber operations by foreign governments. 

“I think that what this indicates is that people use tools that are available to them, and that’s the world we live in today, people really need to be cautious with the cyber stuff,” Risch said.

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure, Protection and Innovation, said the hack was an example of why Congress needs to step up its efforts to defend against cyberattacks.

“This is another unfortunate example of the evolving nature of cyber threats that we are currently facing,” Katko told The Hill in a statement. “Even something as innocuous as a video can contain malware, which is why it’s important that everyone, including Members of Congress, be aware of and practice good cyber hygiene.” 

Former top U.S. officials also addressed the concerns the hacking raised, with Christopher Painter, the former cyber coordinator at the State Department, telling The Hill that he found Saudi actions to be “extremely troubling” but also “not surprising.”

“It is just an extension of what they are willing to do in the physical world while affording a greater level of perceived anonymity,” Painter said.

There are still many questions about the incident.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Bezos on Wednesday strongly urging him to turn over any information on the hacking that he had to protect others from similar attacks.

“To help Congress better understand what happened – and to help protect Americans against similar attacks – I encourage you to provide my office with information regarding your case,” Wyden wrote. 

Bruce Riedel, the director of the Intelligence Project at Brookings Institution and a former senior advisor to four presidents on the National Security Council, urged Congress to investigate how much the U.S. intelligence community knew about the alleged hacking incident. And he said others could have been targeted beyond just Bezos.

“The Saudis are certain to have hacked many more phones to obtain compromising information on their critics, Americans as well as Saudis,” Riedel told The Hill. 

Experts said the U.S. should expect more attacks and warned that the attackers would change their methods.

“It’s something that people are starting to get more aware of and have better tools to handle, so naturally we are seeing the attacks are going to evolve,” said Hannah Quay-de la Vallee, a senior technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Painter, the former State cyber official, added that the U.S. needs to “ensure there are consequences for these kinds of actions whether committed by our foes or our partners.”

“Not doing so just encourages more bad behavior,” he warned.

Tags Chris Coons Donald Trump Jeff Bezos John Katko Mark Warner Ron Wyden
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