The hack of Bezos’s iPhone by Saudi crown prince is a new conflict: national state vs. multinational magnate

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It’s like a tale from a Hollywood movie. The crown prince and future ruler of the wealthiest oil-rich Middle East country uses the most popular messaging service in the world to send malware to the phone of the CEO of the largest retailer on the planet.

A WhatsApp account belonging to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir apparent to the country known by his initials MBS, sent Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a message on May 1, 2018, which contained some malicious software (malware) that allowed Bezos’s iPhone X to be hacked.

Personal pictures of Bezos, which he sent to his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez, were used in February 2019 by the owner of the tabloid The National Enquirer in an attempt to blackmail Bezos.

In an unprecedented step, Bezos published the threat emails from David Pecker, the head of American Media Inc which is the parent company of the tabloid paper, which had published other “intimate messages” from Sanchez and Bezos, who was still married at the time.

At the heart of this remarkable tale is Bezos’s ownership of The Washington Post newspaper, whose fearless Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi has been reporting on the intrigues of Saudi Arabia and its royals. Khashoggi was murdered when he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in late 2018, which the CIA linked to MBS.

Bezos hired security consultants to investigate how his personal phone was hacked, leading to the claims the May 2018 message (a video of flags of Saudi Arabia and Sweden) where the cause of the hack.

The iPhone hacking was called an attempt to “influence, if not silence” The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia, according to two independent human rights experts from the United Nations who have been investigating Khashoggi and human rights issues around the Saudi government.

Bezos paid $250m for The Washington Post to maintain its role in media freedom. In his post about Pecker he called it a “complexifier” but maintains “The Post is a critical institution with a critical mission” and “my stewardship of The Post and my support of its mission, which will remain unswerving, is something I will be most proud of when I’m 90 and reviewing my life”.

On Monday the Wall Street Journal reported that US prosecutors are investigating Sanchez’s brother for selling the text messages to The National Enquirer, which further muddies this strange tale.

Either way, the Bezos iPhone hack and the Saudi royal prince connection is going to be one of the defining stories of this age. If the MBS hacking allegations are true, and you’d imagine Bezos and the UN wouldn’t publicise them without considerable certainty (just look at the screengrabs of the messages) it represents a new form of conflict between a national state versus multinational magnate. Amazon is now the largest retailer in the world, having eclipsed Walmart.

What we are seeing is a conflict between the richest man in the world versus the potential new head of the wealthiest country in the world. It’s Big Oil vs Big Data. Or the old economy vs the new economy. Freedom of expression vs repressive regimes. All playing out in the public spotlight. It’s both terrifying and fascinating at the same time.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail.

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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