Don't expect White House reproach over Bezos phone hack

Saudi allegedly hacked Bezos' phone. Don't expect reproach from the White House
4 min read
30 Jan, 2020
Comment: Even if a US investigation concludes Saudi Arabia hacked the phones of Bezos and a US journalist, it's unlikely to rattle US-Saudi relations, writes Courtney Freer.
Bezos' phone was allegedly infected by spyware hidden in a message from MbS [Getty]
News surfaced last week that a report from FTI Consulting claimed with "medium to high confidence" that Amazon CEO and owner of The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos' phone was hacked in 2018, allegedly at the hands of Saudi Arabia.

A summary of the report was vetted by UN reporters, and the document is now available in full. Saudi Arabia has denied responsibility for the hacking, with the Saudi embassy in the US dubbing the media reports about the incident "absurd" and calling for their own investigation of the claims. 

In the week since the news broke, some experts have questioned the methods behind the claims made in the FTI report, indicating that it's near impossible to find a smoking gun when it comes to detecting the source of spyware.

But the UN report on the hacking concluded that "the most likely explanation for the anomalous data egress was use of mobile spyware such as 
NSO Group's Pegasus." 

NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company that offers clients "offensive-cyber capabilities," has previously been accused of aiding Saudi Arabia in tracking dissidents, but has denied the allegations in the UN report, insisting that it only allows the use of its technology for investigating "terror and serious crime" and that it cannot be used on US phone numbers. 

Still, just days after the FTI report surfaced, New York Times correspondent Ben Hubbard, whose book on the Saudi crown prince is set for release later this year, reported that his mobile phone had also been hacked.

Researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, say they have discovered 
five instances of the use of spyware to target individuals linked to Saudi Arabia between May and June 2018.

The same UN report found that malware was sent to others critical of the Saudi government

These individuals included Omar Abdulaziz, a Canada-based Saudi dissident and friend of Jamal Khashoggi; Yahya Asiri, the director of a UK-based Saudi human rights organisation; an unnamed researcher for Amnesty International; and Ghanem al-Masarir, a self-exiled Saudi dissident. If this assessment is correct, Hubbard is the first American journalist to be targeted. 

Incidentally, also last week, Saudi human rights activist and satirist Ghanem al-Masarir, now living in the UK, was granted permission to sue Saudi Arabia for allegedly hacking his phone. The case, his lawyers say, is important in protecting freedom of expression, and al-Masarir has expressed a hope that his experience may lead others who have been targeted by hacking to take the state to court as well. 

Another potential development in revelations about Saudi hacking is taking place in the US. Senator Chris Murphy (D - Connecticut) has called on the FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence to investigate FTI's report on the hacking of Bezos' phone.

posits that the "new allegation indicates that Khashoggi's murder may have been part of a broader campaign to intimidate and silence opponents of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is critical that Congress and the American people understanding the extent of this campaign and any vulnerabilities to US national security."

Indeed, the Saudi crown prince reportedly enjoys a close relationship with Jared Kushner, which has led to some concern that the White House advisor's phone could have also been hacked.

UN human rights experts have also voiced their wish for a full US-led report into the matter, with special rapporteurs Agnès Callamard and David Kaye issuing a statement stating they are "gravely concerned" by the evidence, which they dubbed an "effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post's report on Saudi Arabia."

same UN report found that malware was sent to others critical of the Saudi government, including a Norwegian official. For her part, Callamard told The New York Times that this hacking "is in a different league" from past instances, since Bezos is not a Saudi citizen and instead is "a person of strategic interest".

The White House has thus far only 
responded to say that "we take this situation seriously" and that Saudi Arabia is "an important ally." 

The results of a US-led investigation, if it is in fact carried out, will help determine just how involved Saudi Arabia is in hacking devices of Americans involved in journalism, which would represent a new and blatant incursion into American media.

Even if facts are established, it is unclear how the US-Saudi relationship would change moving forward

Even if facts are established, however, it is unclear how the US-Saudi relationship would change moving forward.

Indeed, the 
CIA determined with confidence that Mohammed bin Salman directed Jamal Khashoggi's murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

The UN agreed with this assessment, and yet business continues now largely as it was before, with many major US firms returning to Riyadh for its annual investment forum and with the Trump administration perhaps even more vested in protecting its ally, as it continues efforts to exert maximum pressure on Iran and to try to rally Arab support for its Middle East 'peace plan'.

Dr Courtney Freer is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics and a research officer for the Kuwait Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.