U.N. calls for ‘immediate investigation’ into Jeff Bezos phone hack allegedly involving Saudi Crown Prince
People’s jaws dropped Tuesday night after reading a report from The Guardian that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, had his phone hacked after receiving an infected video from a WhatsApp account used by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Saudi embassy in the U.S. quickly denied the report in a post on Twitter, calling the allegation “absurd.” “We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out,” it said.
On Wednesday morning, the United Nations’ human rights office made a similar plea. The office said in a statement that the situation “demands immediate investigation by US and other relevant authorities, including investigation of the continuous, multi-year, direct and personal involvement of the Crown Prince in efforts to target perceived opponents.”
Bezos and bin Salman supposedly exchanged numbers after meeting for dinner in Los Angeles during the latter’s glad-handing tour of the U.S. in 2018, according to the Financial Times, which said it viewed a forensic report on the hack of Bezos’s phone. FTI Consulting, a Washington, D.C., firm that is said to have conducted the investigation, per the FT, assigned its conclusions “medium to high confidence.” (FTI Consulting told Fortune, “We do not comment on, confirm or deny client engagements or potential engagements.”)
Apparently, the compromise of Bezos’s phone, an iPhone X, occurred shortly after a WhatsApp account used by bin Salman shared an encrypted video file with Bezos on May 1, 2018, just weeks after the in-person meeting. Dozens of gigabytes of data were subsequently siphoned from Bezos’s device, an analysis found.
This is not the first time Saudi Arabia has been implicated in phone hacking—though the incident may provide the strongest link yet to bin Salman himself. Saudi authorities have previously been accused of spying on activists and political dissidents, including Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi critic and columnist for the Bezos-owned Washington Post who was murdered by Saudi agents in Oct. 2018.
While the story does indeed seem “absurd,” as the Saudi embassy called it, that is no disqualification for truth. As one foreign government leader put it to me in a message last night: “All i can say is… WOW!!!” adding, “That is the wildest thing ever.”
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iCould have. Apple backed off from end-to-end encrypting customers’ data backups in iCloud, its cloud storage service, by default after the FBI complained that it would impede investigations, Reuters reports. It’s unclear whether Apple disbanded the 10-person unit exploring the feature because of the pressure from law enforcement, or for other reasons. For instance, if Apple were not to keep a copy of people’s iCloud encryption keys, data recovery would become much more difficult for customers.
Green-walled. Federal prosecutors in Brazil have charged Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist best known for publishing leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, with cybercrimes. Prosecutors say that Greenwald helped facilitate illegal hacking based on his conversations with hackers who obtained text messages that showed Brazilian prosecutors and anticorruption officials in a bad light. Greenwald called the charges "an obvious attempt to attack a free press in retaliation for the revelations we reported about...the Bolsonaro government" in power in Brazil. Legal experts have flocked to his defense.
Hua-waylaid. Lawyers for Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's finance chief, argued in Canadian court that she should not be extradited to the U.S. on charges on having defied U.S. sanctions on Iran. A long legal battle over the executive's fate is expected. Meanwhile, Wanzhou's father, Ren Zhengfei, Huawei's founder, made an appearance at the World Economic Forum. He said that Huawei can "survive even further attacks" by the U.S. to restrict the company's ability to do business around the world.
Bittersweet symphony. Operation Glowing Symphony—a U.S. military cyber operation initiated in late 2016 to disrupt the online presence of the self-identified Islamic State—got strung up in the early planning stages by interagency dispute, newly released government documents reveal. The experience contributed to the Trump administration's implementation of laxer rules for the deployment of cyber weapons, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing current and former officials.
In your face. Clearview AI, a small facial recognition startup whose databases have scraped billions of images from social media, has been providing its technology to hundreds of law enforcement agencies, the New York Times reports. The piece raises troubling privacy questions. Also in the Times, cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier says that banning facial recognition tech misses the point; the U.S. needs laws that address data privacy consent, data handling, and discrimination. Meanwhile, Wired has a delicious biography of Woody Bledsoe, a little-known facial recognition pioneer whose work, the magazine says, "prefigured all these technological breakthroughs and their queasy ethical implications."
This is what happens when your hacking is too successful.
The Kremlin's espionage seemingly knows no bounds. In August, Swiss police caught two Russian men suspected of plotting to bug rooms and set up a spying ring to monitor proceedings—and closed-door conversations—at the World Economic Forum, the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger reports. The Financial Times followed the report with some additional details and context regarding the alleged subterfuge. (Did you know, for instance, that the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service concluded in 2018 that one in four Russian diplomats based in Switzerland was a spy?)
Five months before world leaders began their pilgrimage to the annual World Economic Forum this week—among them US president Donald Trump—Swiss police interrupted what reports on Tuesday claimed were the beginnings of a Russian spying operation in the secluded Alpine town....
According to Zürich’s Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, which carried a detailed report of the incident, police and Swiss federal officials suspected the pair of being Russian intelligence agents, posing as tradesmen in order to install surveillance equipment at key facilities around the town to monitor the private conversations of the world’s powerful and wealthy during the World Economic Forum on behalf of the Kremlin.
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ONE MORE THING
For some privacy advocates the future is so bright they must wear shades. Not just any shades, mind you: specifically, they're wearing IRpair Reflectacle sunglasses. This eyewear, highlighted in a recent Seattle Times story, is designed to reflect the infrared light emitted by surveillance cameras in order to block facial recognition technologies. In video recordings, the heads of people donning such lenses appear as eery, bright auras. The sunglasses aren't Ray-Bans, but they do, apparently, ban certain rays. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)