Bezos divorce draws attention to possible Saudi hacking of private devices and personal information

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and wife MacKenzie have finalized their amicable divorce, whereby Mr. Bezos retains control over his USD $890 billion online marketplace. On January 9, Mr. Bezos announced the end of their 25-year marriage, the day before American tabloid the National Enquirer published details of his “months-long affair” with Lauren Sanchez.

Mr. Bezos told his top security chief of 22 years, former CIA and FBI agent Gavin de Becker, to “spend whatever is needed” to find the source who leaked the details of his new relationship. In February, Mr. Bezos published a blog post charging that the tabloid had attempted to blackmail him with intimate photographs that had been taken on his smartphone and allegedly sent to Ms. Sanchez unless the investigation was dropped.

Mr. de Becker’s investigation led him to accuse Saudi Arabia of hacking Mr. Bezos’ phone to obtain private information, including the photos and accompanying texts. “Some Americans will be surprised to learn that the Saudi government has been very intent on harming Jeff Bezos since last October, when the Post began its relentless coverage of Khashoggi’s murder,” Mr. de Becker wrote in an article for the Daily Beast.

After interviews with current and former executives from The National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc (AMI), advisers to American President Donald Trump, associates close to those at the heart of Saudi Arabia's government, Middle East intelligence experts and cyber security specialists, Mr. de Becker concluded the hacking was a “key part of the Saudis’ ‘extensive surveillance efforts’”. Experts told Mr. de Becker about the Saudi government’s capability to “collect vast amounts of previously inaccessible data from smartphones in the air without leaving a trace - including phone calls, texts, emails.

In his article, Mr. de Becker suggested that Mr. Bezos became a target of the Saudi regime after the Washington Post, which he owns, criticized the country after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. United States intelligence officials said they believed that Mr. Khashoggi's killing, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was ordered by the crown prince himself. This allegation was strongly denied by the Saudi government, and the Saudi government’s Minister of State for foreign affairs denied all accusations regarding Mr. Bezos, saying it had “absolutely nothing to do” with the National Enquirer’s story.

Mr. de Becker said some of the methods allegedly employed by the Saudi government to “attack” people, included creating artificially trending hashtags online. He claimed it had also used a “cyberarmy” of bots to attack Mr. Bezos.

The Saudi regime previously sent an operative to work for Twitter to gather information. Twitter later fired the suspected employee and later advised certain users that their accounts may have been targeted by state-sponsored actors.

Evidence from Mr. de Becker’s investigation has been turned over to federal officials, and he notes it is “unclear to what degree” AMI is aware of the Saudi government’s involvement.