TOM LEONARD: Billionaires engulfed in cyber hacking sensation

Billionaires engulfed in cyber hacking sensation: Amazon boss Jeff Bezos and Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman swapped numbers at a party. Now they’re mired in a scandal involving murder, an adulterous affair, and spying claims, writes TOM LEONARD

As a titan of Silicon Valley, Jeff Bezos should probably have known the first rule of internet security – never click on anything sent to you by someone you don’t know.

And yet the Amazon boss thought he knew Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

The two ‘kings’ – one the world’s richest man and creator of the online retail giant, and the other the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and heir to his family’s $100billion fortune – had been introduced to each other in April 2018 at a glittering Hollywood dinner.

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos was interested in opening data centres in Saudi Arabia and had exchanged numbers with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (pictured together)

The crown prince was on a charm-offensive tour of America, not only to find possible investors for his desert kingdom but also to clean up his tarnished brand and particularly his controversial track record as his family’s merciless ‘enforcer’.

Pressing the flesh of everyone from Oprah Winfrey to film star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, ‘MBS’ had received a warm welcome everywhere he went, even getting an invitation to the White House.

Amazon founder Mr Bezos, today worth $116billion (£87billion) and a man who rarely misses a business opportunity, was interested in opening data centres in Saudi Arabia.

The two men swapped phone numbers – naturally – which led to them striking up a chummy relationship on the online and supposedly encrypted messaging service WhatsApp.

But that apparently innocuous encounter, revealed in a jaw-dropping United Nations report yesterday, would have seismic consequences.

The crown prince wasn’t trying to befriend Mr Bezos, it is alleged. 

Instead, spyware had apparently been sent from an account of the Saudi heir to the throne to Mr Bezos’s phone to steal its secrets. 

According to the UN, Mr Bezos received an encrypted video file sent from Mr bin Salman’s WhatsApp account during a friendly exchange before spyware took control of his phone. Pictured: A single photograph was later texted to Mr Bezos along with a ‘sardonic caption’

The Saudi government yesterday said it was ‘absurd’ to suggest it was behind the hacking of Mr Bezos’s phone.

Its embassy in Washington called for an investigation.

The UN, too, has demanded an immediate inquiry into the findings of two independent human rights experts who compiled its report, who call the alleged cyber-spying an ‘effort to influence, if not silence’ reporting on Saudi Arabia by the Washington Post.

The newspaper, which Mr Bezos owns, has been highly critical of Saudi Arabia, chiefly over its coverage of the horrific murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 (the crime at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was reportedly filmed and the victim’s body afterwards cut into pieces).

Mr Khashoggi, whose slaying was allegedly ordered by Mr bin Salman – something he has always denied – was a Washington Post columnist who regularly attacked repression in Saudi Arabia.

According to the UN, a few weeks after Mr Bezos and MBS met in Los Angeles (several months before Mr Khashoggi’s murder), Mr Bezos received and opened an encrypted video file sent from Mr bin Salman’s WhatsApp account during a friendly exchange.

Investigators now believe the video – purportedly an Arabic-language promotional film about telecommunications – was anything but helpful.

According to the UN report, it was ‘later established, with reasonable certainty, that the video’s downloader infected Mr Bezos’s phone with malicious code’.

Within hours, this spyware had taken control of Mr Bezos’s phone and reportedly extracted ‘massive’ amounts of data from it. 

Some of the information was of a very intimate nature.

The image sent to Mr Bezos was of a young woman, apparently a model, who strongly resembled former TV presenter Lauren Sanchez, 49. Pictured: Bezos and Sanchez at the Amazon Prime Video celebration in 2020

Exactly how intimate, says the UN report, was revealed in November 2018 when a single photograph was texted to Mr Bezos apparently from the crown prince’s WhatsApp account along with a ‘sardonic caption’.

The image was of a young woman, apparently a model, who strongly resembled Lauren Sanchez, 49, the busty wife of a friend of Mr Bezos.

The sexist photo caption read: ‘Arguing with a woman is like reading the software license agreement. In the end you have to ignore everything and click I agree.’

Mr Bezos and his wife would then have been discussing their divorce – as anyone secretly reading his text messages would have learnt.

The photo may have been a crude attempt at blackmail, for Miss Sanchez’s significance, evidently known to the sender, wouldn’t become general knowledge for two more months.

In January 2019 the sensational news broke that, although married for 25 years to MacKenzie Tuttle and the father of four children with her (three biological sons and one adopted daughter), Mr Bezos had been having a torrid affair with Miss Sanchez, a pneumatic former TV presenter and married mother of two.

America’s gossip tabloid the National Enquirer broke the story, revealing lurid details of how it had reportedly spent four months trailing the couple ‘across five states and 40,000 miles, tailing them in private jets, swanky limos, helicopter rides, romantic hikes, five-star hotel hideaways, intimate dinner dates and “quality time” in hidden love nests’.

The Enquirer piled on the embarrassment, revealing raunchy text messages and ‘erotic’ selfie photos that had been exchanged by the lovers. 

It was all not only personally humiliating for Mr Bezos – who almost simultaneously announced he and his wife were getting divorced – but also risked devastating his business affairs.

Why? Because the couple had been married before he started Amazon from the garage of their rented home in 1994. 

Under the laws of Washington state (where they lived) all assets of a divorcing couple have to be divided equally and fairly. 

Analysts warned that Mr Bezos, 56, might even lose control of Amazon if he had to pay too much to his wife.

In the event, she took $35billion (£26billion) worth of Amazon shares in the divorce settlement, temporarily dethroning Mr Bezos as the world’s richest person but not breaking his grip on the retail behemoth.

So, his denials notwithstanding, is it possible that Mr bin Salman or his underlings actually put ‘spyware’ on Mr Bezos’s phone, effectively gaining access to all its information, from his text messages to its location?

It certainly is.

The UN report notes meaningfully that in November 2017 the elite Saudi Royal Guard, which protects the country’s monarchy, bought from a controversial Israeli technology firm, NSO Group, sophisticated secret software designed to enable the remote surveillance of smartphones.

Analysts say such a decision must have been approved by the crown prince, who has been leading the campaign against political opponents.

Within the next few months – around the time Mr Bezos’s phone was reportedly hacked – a string of outspoken critics of the Saudi regime had their phones infected by malicious code via a texted link on WhatsApp, says the UN report.

They included human rights activists, Saudi dissidents and even an Amnesty International official. 

A common link was that they were in contact with the soon-to-be-murdered journalist Mr Khashoggi.

Last year, WhatsApp admitted a major cybersecurity breach had allowed spyware allegedly made by NSO Group to be installed on phones. It said the malicious code could be transmitted even by a voice call that wasn’t answered.

Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, has since sued NSO Group in America.

Added to which, this week’s UN report also notes that Facebook has confirmed that sending a video file to a WhatsApp user – precisely as the Saudis are accused of having sent to Mr Bezos – was a method for installing malicious spyware.

Appalled that the Enquirer got hold of his text messages and selfie photos, Mr Bezos (who has declined to comment on the UN report) was determined to trace the leak.

He brought in an external team of investigators. Speculation initially focused on Miss Sanchez’s brother, Michael, who denied selling them to the magazine. 

But it soon emerged that Mr Bezos was convinced this was about far more than money. 

In February 2019, he published an article in which he suggested he had been targeted because of the political coverage of the Washington Post, becoming an enemy of Saudi Arabia chiefly over its coverage of the murder of Mr Khashoggi.

Mr Bezos, who attended a memorial service for the journalist outside the consulate in Turkey where he was killed, became a target for endless online criticism from Saudi trolls who also called for a boycott of Amazon.

Mr Bezos’s security chief, Gavin de Becker, later directly accused the government in Riyadh of hacking the Amazon chief’s phone.

‘Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone and gained private information,’ wrote Mr de Becker. However, he was vague about details.

Where did this all fit in with the National Enquirer? Mr Bezos has claimed that the Enquirer’s owner, David Pecker, has strong ties to Mr bin Salman, having reportedly met the crown prince in Saudi Arabia in 2017.

When MBS flew to America the following year, Mr Pecker’s company obligingly published a glossy magazine, The New Kingdom, promoting the future Saudi king on the front page as a great leader who would transform the world.

(Pecker is also close to Donald Trump, who loathes Mr Bezos due to the Washington Post’s attacks on his presidency. 

The US Justice Department has accused Mr Pecker of helping the Trump campaign ‘kill’ damaging stories about the President’s alleged extramarital affairs by paying to silence the accusers and never publishing their stories.)

In his online article from February 2019, Mr Bezos accused the Enquirer and its owner of ‘extortion and blackmail’, claiming the company had threatened to publish graphic photos of him – including what he memorably called a ‘below-the-belt selfie’ – if he didn’t affirm publicly that political considerations had nothing to do with its reporting of his affair.

For its part, the Enquirer insists that Miss Sanchez’s brother Michael had been its source for stories about Mr Bezos’s affair. (Michael Sanchez has admitted he helped the tabloid but also insists that it had seen private text exchanges between Mr Bezos and Miss Sanchez’s sister before he became involved.)

A spokesman for American Media, which owns the Enquirer, said it ‘does not have, nor have we ever had, any editorial or financial ties to Saudi Arabia’.

The company has previously insisted that the source for its expose on Mr Bezos’s affair was ‘not Saudi Arabia’.

The UN report makes clear that Mr Bezos was hardly the only victim of Saudi cyber-hacking, which one US senator has described as a ‘growing trend’.

Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and a key White House foreign policy aide, reportedly chats regularly with Mr bin Salman on WhatsApp, prompting speculation that his phone might also have been hacked, if these allegations are true.

The new bombshell claims present a conundrum for President Trump and Mr Kushner, who both have close ties to the crown prince even though US intelligence says with ‘medium-to-high’ certainty that he ordered Mr Khashoggi’s murder.

It would be astonishing if the heir to the ruling dynasty of one of the Middle East’s most powerful countries personally tried to twist the arm of the world’s richest man over unflattering coverage in his newspaper.

However, Saudi experts alleged yesterday that is precisely how the kingdom’s leaders do things – personally.

Saudi denials notwithstanding, the move has backfired spectacularly. MBS already faced intense criticism over his backing for a devastating civil war in Yemen, the alleged torture of rich Saudis in a Riyadh hotel and the supposed kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister during a visit to Saudi Arabia.

That ugly charge sheet now includes calls for an investigation into his possible involvement in the rather more mundane alleged offence of phone hacking – albeit of one of the world’s richest men. 

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