The hacking of the world’s richest man by a Saudi Arabian prince using a WhatsApp message will hopefully act as a historical flashpoint in the pursuit of effective cybersecurity. Out of the billions of homo-sapiens that use the internet, Jeff Bezos has arguably benefited the most from the building of networked infrastructures. His fleet of AI robots and drones coupled with immeasurable stores of data make him, along with individuals like Mark Zuckerberg, a modern day emperor. Yet, despite being a master architect of modern platform infrastructures and the commander of an army of cybersecurity specialists his phone still managed to be compromised by a WhatsApp message. The video file, sent on the 20th of May 2018 that contained an image related to the 2018 World Cup, downloaded malware that gave the Saudi’s access to all the data on Bezos’ phone. This was then used to intimidate the Amazon boss with cryptic messages about affairs and indications that the Prince was eavesdropping in to his conversations.
The media has reacted with enough alarm that suggests the case of Mr Bezos may transform public awareness of cyber security issues. India’s Business Insider argued that the hack shows ‘hackers are winning in the ‘arms race’ between governments and tech firms’ with one specialist describing how ‘tens of million of phones are hacked on a daily basis’. Forbes wrote a story titled ‘If Jeff Bezos’ Iphone can be hacked over WhatsApp, so can yours’ quoting an academic who suggested the incident may create the ‘legal and computer changes we all need’ to protect ourselves online. Vox, The Daily Dot and the Times then ran stories providing users with practical cybersecurity advice such as changing settings to prevent immediately downloading WhatsApp media and not giving anyone physical access to your phone. The advice was disparate and varied suggesting we still don’t have established techniques and instructions to protect ourselves online. Laughably CNN did not seem to understand the ramifications of Bezos’ attack, claiming it was unlikely ‘ordinary’ people would be affected by such cybercrime providing just a sentence of cyber security advice which was to ‘make sure you app is up to date’.
The combination of hacking into Bezos’ phone through a WhatsApp message and subsequent abuse of data for blackmailing serves to exemplify how in the modern age phone hacking is one of the most violent crimes we can commit towards our fellow humans. Phones are the most powerful node in an individual’s network. In the case of Bezos this gave hostile actors access to sensitive business discussions, divorce dealings and pornographic images being received and responded by a mistress. It may seem that this story of a prince and a billionaire is an anomaly, however, the breaking into an IoT device and subsequent ability to collect and use information for malevolent means strikes at a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common for the coming century. Phone hacking is not the purview of princes and billionaires. Instead it is the grim reality for those with abusive partners and competitive colleagues.
In ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitabilsm’ Zuboff forwards a new theory of power called ‘instrumentarianism’ defined as the instrumentation and instrumentalization of behaviour for the purposes of modification, prediction, monetization and control’. Ironically Amazon is one of the institutions most culpable for using internet data to monetize and modify user data, nonetheless, the advent of phone and computer hacking is the highest and ugliest form of ‘instrumentalisation’, as demonstrated by its use in attempting to silence the Washinton Posts’ criticism on Saudi Arabia and the state sponsored killing of the newspapers’ journalist.
In the context of the UK it is urgent that Boris Johnson directs the 20,000 newly employed police officers towards creating an effective domestic cyber security unit. This would support citizens with technologically competent police officers that would enhance the citizens ability to report and punish such crimes. Failure to do so will drive people to protect themselves with cyber weapons as one might do with a gun. Similarly Bezos’ can do more to purge Amazon of cybercrime tools as at the moment they are actively selling, and even endorsing through the ‘Amazon’s Choice’ banner, products that allow the creation of fake Wi-Fi spots that one can then use to collect a user’s intimate details like passwords. The company selling this product agreed the product could be ‘terribly illegal’ leading to domestic cases of blackmail not to dissimilar from those enacted on Bezos.
I commend Bezos’ response and urge my fellow networked nodes to condemn phone and computer hacking as one of the most abhorrent products of the 21st century.