Jeff Bezos is worth a lot of money. As the face of Amazon, a company that has long since hit over $1 trillion, Bezos walks around with a target on his back. His power and influence as a wealthy and successful entrepreneur has drawn attention from fellow entrepreneurs and even members of foreign governments, including the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. It seems as though Mohammed bin Salman wanted information off of Bezos’ phone so desperately that he sent Bezos malware through a WhatsApp message.
The Saudi Prince vs the CEO of Amazon
Research on Bezos’ phone hack, which occurred on May 1, 2018, stems back to a video file he received via WhatsApp from the Saudi Crown Prince. The United Nations reports that the NSO Group’s infamous Pegasus malware is the cause of the hack in question. It’s unclear exactly what the Saudi royal family was attempting to obtain from Bezos’ phone, but it’s safe to assume the information they were looking for pertained to business dealings.
Pegasus-3, an advanced spyware tool, was obtained by the Saudi Royal Guard via a contract that transpired in November of 2017.
Who is NSO and What is Pegasus?
NSO Group Technologies is an Israeli tech firm that creates spyware by profession. They claim their main goal is to provide governments and legal authorities with tools to act as an investigative or evidence gathering solution against terrorism or crime. Theoretically, what NSO creates would have a practical application to bust terrorists or cybercriminals, like identity thieves or child pornographers. Unfortunately, these tools are rarely used for above-board purposes.
Pegasus (and all of its iterations) is a spyware program that stealthily hijacks devices like smartphones. It installs itself, gathers all information from the device, and sends it to the intended third party. It records virtually everything, from photos to contacts to GPS locations. It can also be used to eavesdrop on voice or text conversations via the phone’s native calling and texting features or through third party applications that facilitate communication.
The Longstanding Feud Between Bezos and Bin Salman
The reason Mohammed bin Salman targeted Jeff Bezos may not be apparent at first glance. The turmoil stems from The Saudi Royal Family’s disdain for The Washington Post, a publication owned by Jeff Bezos. In 2018, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi wrote a piece critical of Mohammed bin Salman, leading to Khashoggi’s death at the hands of a team of Saudi hitmen.
The Saudi Royal Family has a bone to pick with the Washington Post, to the extent of fatal violence. They attempt to control the global narrative as it pertains to their image, giving them motive to attack those who criticize or condone the criticism of their actions. Around the time Bezos’ phone was afflicted with Pegasus malware, two associates of Jamal Khashoggi were also subjected to an attack with the same malware.
Of Course, Everyone Denies It
NSO, the creators of Pegasus, adamantly deny involvement in the hack. They have released this official statement:
” As we stated unequivocally in April 2019 to the same false assertion, our technology was not used in this instance. We know this because of how our software works and our technology cannot be used on US phone numbers. Our products are only used to investigate terror and serious crime. Any suggestion that NSO is involved is defamatory and the company will take legal counsel to address this.”NSO Reply
Investigations lead by the UN have determined that NSO’s Pegasus was the most likely culprit, and that such technology had been granted to the Saudi Royal Family. No official findings have been published as of this time, nor has the manner of investigation utilized by the UN been revealed.
UN investigations seem to suggest that Saudi officials were aware of bin Salman’s involvement in the hack of Bezos’s phone, as well as the phones of two associates of the late Jamal Khashoggi who was extra judiciously killed on behalf of the Saudi family. Despite the findings, no one has released an official plan of action regarding methods or means to hold bin Salman responsible for his crimes.
Keeping Your Phone Safe
The best way to keep your phone safe from malware is to avoid opening links or downloading anything from senders you cannot be completely sure are trustworthy. Using a VPN to browse the internet on your phone can keep you free from many types of spying or surveillance attacks. Avoid using third party apps that are not highly reputable and created by trustworthy publishers and developers, particularly if they seem to require an inordinate amount of permissions. If you are storing private files and pictures on your mobile device make sure to keep them encrypted and use a service like PrivateMail Files to share securely.