Saudi Crown Prince denies hacking Jeff Bezos’ phone

Jeff Bezos and Saudi Crown Prince

The explosive forensic analysis that concluded Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos was hacked is coming under scrutiny from independent security experts, some of whom say the evidence isn’t strong enough to reach a firm conclusion.

The
criticism, including from several high-profile and respected researchers,
highlights the limits of a report produced by FTI Consulting, the company Bezos
hired to investigate the matter. 

But it
also underscores the challenges of finding rock-bottom truth in the world of
digital forensics, a messy business shaped less by absolute certainties and
more by degrees of confidence and calculated probabilities.

The
report — a summary of which was released this week by United Nations
investigators who vetted it — determined that in May 2018, Bezos’s phone
received a WhatsApp message from the account of Saudi Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Bezos had used WhatsApp to communicate since at
least the previous month. After the message, the report said, Bezos’s phone
began transferring large amounts of data off of the device. And, according to
the report, at least two subsequent messages from the crown prince’s
account seemed to indicate knowledge of events in Bezos’s private
life, the report said. The report suggested the incident bore hallmarks of
sophisticated hacking software. 

Saudi
Arabia has denied it was responsible for hacking Bezos’s device.

“Recent
media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’
phone are absurd,” the Saudi embassy in
Washington tweeted Tuesday. “We call for an investigation
on these claims so that we can have all the facts out.”

Even as
some analysts suggested FTI made the best of a difficult
situation, critics of the FTI report said the paper revealed a lack of
sophistication that could have been addressed by specialized mobile forensics
experts, or law enforcement officials with access to premium tools.

“It
does seem like [FTI] gave it the good try, but it seems they’re just
not as knowledgeable in the mobile forensics realm as they could have
been,” said Sarah Edwards, an instructor at the SANS Institute, a security
training and research organization.

FTI
Consulting declined to comment.

A key
shortcoming of the analysis, Edwards said, was that it relied on a restricted
set of content obtained from Bezos’s iTunes backup. A deeper analysis, she
said, would have collected detailed records from the iPhone’s underlying
operating and file systems. 

Other
security experts characterized the evidence in the report as inconclusive.

“It contains much that says ‘anomalies we don’t understand,’ but lack of explanations point to incomplete forensics, not malicious APT actors,” tweeted Rob Graham, the CEO of Errata Security, using the industry acronym to describe top-tier hacker groups. 

Alex
Stamos, the former chief information security officer at Facebook and a
Stanford University professor, said the report was “not very strong.”

“Lots of odd circumstantial evidence, for sure, but no smoking gun,” he tweeted.

Other
researchers suggested ways for the investigation to generate more useful
information. Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto,
offered a suggestion that could allow investigators to gain access to encrypted
information that FTI said it could not unlock.

The
outpouring of researcher feedback suggests independent security and policy
experts might be able to help shape what until now has been a private
investigation. FTI has kept a tight hold on Bezos’s device; a source close
to the UN team said the UN did not have access to the phone when it vetted the
report. On Wednesday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter to Bezos
asking for detailed technical information related to the probe to “help
the United States Government, businesses and independent researchers discover
who else may have been targeted.”

The FBI
has been interested in the case from a counterintelligence perspective,
according to two people familiar with the hacking investigation. Bezos’s team
performed its own forensic analysis and shared the results with the
FBI.  

Meanwhile,
other members of the security research community are more sympathetic to FTI’s
findings.

The
report’s limited results are a reminder that it can be extremely challenging to
reconstruct the activities of a determined, well-resourced hacker, said Kenneth
White, a security engineer and former adviser to the Defense Department and
Department of Homeland Security. 

“I
think it has to be evaluated in the context of the entire investigation; it’s
just one part of the story,” said White. “Some of the technical
critiques around how the forensics were performed and what data were and were
not analyzed are fair, but this is in no way a ‘typical’ phone hacking case, if
there is such a thing.” 

Chris
Vickery, director of cyber risk research at the security company UpGuard, said
other evidence provided by FTI increased his confidence that Bezos was being
digitally surveilled. 

The
report’s analysis of WhatsApp messages sent by the crown prince’s
account — messages that appeared to indicate knowledge of otherwise
private information — were a key indicator, said Vickery. 

“When
you’re investigating a crime, it’s important to consider lots of factors,”
said Vickery, “and you’re not always going to have the smoking gun
immediately. You have to bring the puzzle pieces together. You can’t ask for
the whole puzzle all at once.”

One
security expert put it more bluntly.

“There’s
an absurd amount of Monday morning quarterbacking going on,” said the
expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to preserve professional
relationships with the report’s critics. “This isn’t a movie — things
don’t proceed in a perfect, clean way. It’s messy, and decisions are made the
way they’re made.”

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