webnexttech | A new book shows how surveillance led Jeff Bezos’s professional and personal lives to collide
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On May 1, 2018, Jeff Bezos received a WhatsApp message with a video attachment on his mobile phone.A name flashed across the dimly lit screen “Muhammad bin Salman” aka MBS.
Bezos had met MBS at a private dinner in Los Angeles in April 2018, but they were not in regular contact.
The video file extolled the tremendous progress made by Saudi Arabia’s economy under MBS.
One may imagine that it would be quite natural for MBS and Bezos, two members of the rarefied world of the global elite, to be in touch.
The crown prince is seen by the world at large as the greatest hope for the modernization of Saudi Arabia.
Bezos, of course, is an icon of the Internet revolution.
But there were more specific reasons that brought them together.
In 2013, Jeff Bezos had purchased the Washington Post, the iconic paper started by the legendary Katherine Graham, for $250 million.
Starting in September 2017, the Post started running a column by Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian dissident journalist, author, and editor of the liberal newspaper Al Watan.
Khashoggi’s pieces in the Washington Post were critical of the Saudi government over a number of issues.
He opposed its over-enthusiastic embrace of Donald Trump and exposed the exaggerated claims about reforms with regard to freedom of expression.
He had teamed up on a range of projects with Omar Abdelaziz, who is among the most well-known public critics of the Saudi regime abroad and has received asylum in Canada.
One of these projects was Geish al-Nahl (Army of the Bees) which aimed to create an alternative to the regime’s propaganda machine – “a network of pro-democracy activists who would post and amplify one another’s messages about Saudi political issues”.
On October 2, 2018, a squad of 15 assassins killed Khashoggi.
He had been summoned to the Saudi consulate building in Turkey on the pretext of providing necessary documentation for his upcoming wedding.
The squad ambushed him and suffocated him to death before dismembering his body.
Several investigations including by US and Turkey concluded that the assassination had been carried out by Saudi agents at the behest of the Saudi crown prince.
The Washington Post began a relentless campaign against the Saudi establishment.
The campaign would soon face some unconventional challenges.
In early January 2019, Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos announced they were seeking a divorce after 25 years of marriage.
Later that month a story in a tabloid National Enquirer broke the news of Bezos’ extramarital affair with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez.
Various text messages sent by him to her were revealed.
David Pecker, the owner of National Enquirer, was known to have business connections with the Saudi establishment.
To coincide with the high-profile visit of MBS to the US in March 2018, Enquirer had put into circulation 2,00,000 copies of a 97-page glossy magazine on the crown prince’s reformed Saudi Arabia.
In February 2019, Bezos published a sensational blog post where he revealed that following the initial scoop, Enquirer had been extorting and blackmailing him over more of his intimate personal texts and photos that they claimed to possess.
They were threatening to release the salacious content unless Bezos and his team committed to stopping all insinuations of electronic eavesdropping or political involvement of external parties (that is, Saudi Arabia) in the tabloid’s story about his affair.
Bezos said he refused to be subjected to blackmail.
He also mentioned that he had engaged an investigator to understand how his texts were obtained and what the motives of the National Enquirer were.
The investigator was Gavin de Becker, an undisputed authority on security matters related to governments, large corporations, and public figures.
In an article in The Daily Beast in March 2019, he asserted that while the National Enquirer was projecting Michael Sanchez, the brother of Lauren Sanchez, as the source of the leaked texts, his role could be compared to “a low-level Watergate burglar”, not to the architects of the Watergate scandal.
De Becker was referring to the spying scandal that had brought down the government of President Nixon in 1974.
He went on to claim that when the Enquirer approached Michael Sanchez, they had “already been investigating whether Mr Bezos and Ms Sanchez were having an affair,” and had already “seen text exchanges” between the couple.
Sharing the details of the investigation, he stated, “Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information.
As of today, it is unclear to what degree, if any, AMI [American Media Inc, the holding company of National Enquirer] was aware of the details.” He further went on: “Experts with whom we consulted confirmed New York Times reports on the Saudi capability to ‘collect vast amounts of previously inaccessible data from smartphones in the air without leaving a trace – including phone calls, texts, emails’ – and confirmed that hacking was a key part of the Saudis’ ‘extensive surveillance efforts that ultimately led to the killing of [Washington Post] journalist Jamal Khashoggi.’” He also alluded to the elaborate Saudi social media program under which technology and paid surrogates were being used to create artificially trending hashtags.
The surrogates included operatives working for companies such as Twitter.
The investigation into the hacking of Bezos’ phone did not conclusively establish the specific spyware used.
However, one particular surveillance company would soon find itself in the spotlight.
Excerpted with permission from The Last Dance of Rationality: Making Sense of an Unravelling World Order, Rohit Prasad, Hachette India.

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