Why Saudi Arabia could be behind the Jeff Bezos extortion attempt

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When last we left off, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had shocked the world by revealing an extortion plot against him involving some intimate photos, a tabloid, and one or more nation states. Over the weekend, we mostly waited for the next set of shoes to drop. For the most part, we’re still waiting — but a handful of developments have nudged the story forward. (And if you need an explainer on the whole story, start here.)

In the New York Times, Jim Rutenberg, Karen Weise and William K. Rashbaum report that federal prosecutors are reviewing the extortion claims. The owner of the National Enquirer, which apparently attempted to buy Bezos’ silence about the political motivations of a previous leak of his intimate text messages, is scrambling in response:

If American Media is found to have broken a law — any law — it would be in violation of a deal with federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York. The agreement was struck in September after American Media admitted paying hush money during the 2016 presidential campaign to protect Donald J. Trump from allegations of an affair. Under the deal, the company would not be prosecuted for its Trump-related efforts as long as it stayed out of legal trouble for the next three years.

Even as American Media fell into legal jeopardy last year, its board stood by the company’s chairman, David J. Pecker, and its top news executive, Dylan Howard. On Friday, however, the company announced that the board was starting an investigation of Mr. Bezos’ claims.

(Here’s AMI’s full statement on the subject.)

So, to review, there are two mystery leaks at the heart of the Bezos story: one leak of his text messages, and another leak of his photos. It remains unclear whether, or how, they may be related.

On Sunday, The Daily Beast fingered Michael Sanchez, the brother of Jeff Bezos’ girlfriend, as the source of the text message leak:

Documents reviewed by The Daily Beast show that Michael Sanchez believed the Enquirer pursued its story about Bezos with “President Trump’s knowledge and appreciation”—a chase encouraged, in Sanchez’s estimation, by Republican operatives “who THINK Jeff gets up every morning and has a WaPo meeting to plot its next diabolical attack on President Trump.”

No one who spoke to The Daily Beast implied that Michael Sanchez in any way hacked his sister’s phone, and he has not been charged with any crime. In fact, three people familiar with the Bezos-funded probe told The Daily Beast in late January that it had found no evidence of a hack. However, Bezos’ investigators have strongly suspected Sanchez was the leaker since at least last week, according to two people familiar with the investigation. “There is no one inside this inquiry process who doesn’t believe he’s ground zero,” one of those sources said.

Sanchez, a prominent supporter of noted Bezos antagonist Donald Trump, denied the report to Fox News.

Meanwhile, others attempted to unravel the mystery of the photo leak. Iyad el-Baghdadi, an Arab Spring activist and writer, had a compelling thread on the links between Bezos and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The thread observes that:

Based on these facts, el-Baghdadi speculates that MBS believed Bezos would pressure the Post to soften its reporting on the Khashoggi case, to preserve his other business interests, and felt betrayed when he didn’t. He concludes that it was most likely Saudi Arabia, not agents of the United States government, that intercepted Bezos’ messages: “MBS had both the means and the motive to target Bezos. The extramarital affair — and MBS’s relationship with David Pecker — may have given him the opportunity.” (An earlier el-Baghdadi thread describes the relationship between Pecker, AMI, and Saudi Arabia in good detail.)

Bezos tiptoes right up to saying this himself in his original Medium post, in which he writes: “The Post’s essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi is undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles.”

To be sure, el-Baghdadi ’s threads involve a healthy dose of speculation. And AMI has denied that the Saudis were involved. But if they were, it would appear that those certain circles Bezos wrote about may have been motivated by revenge.

While we wait to find out, reporters are exploring other aspects of the case. Here is a profile of Gavin de Becker, Bezos’ security chief. Here is a profile of Jon Fine, a longtime former Amazon lawyer who is now representing AMI against his old boss. Here is a brief history of “sextortion.

And while Bezos and his team manage the threats to him personally, another team is managing a threat to the business. Amid vocal opposition to Amazon’s plans to build a heavily incentivized regional office in New York, people “familiar with the company’s thinking” told the Post that the company would consider abandoning the project for somewhere more welcoming.

Democracy

I Was A Facebook Fact Checker. It Was Like Playing A Doomed Game Of Whack-A-Mole

Former Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski writes a bleak first-person account of battling fake news on Facebook:

But no matter how many times we marked them “false,” stories would keep resurfacing with nothing more than a word or two changed. This happened often enough to make it clear that our efforts weren’t really helping, and that we were being directed toward a certain type of story — and, we presumed, away from others.

What were the algorithmic criteria that generated the lists of articles for us to check? We never knew, and no one ever told us.

India parliament panel says to summon Twitter chief on February 25

Nigam Prusty and Sankalp Phartiyal report that an Indian parliamentary panel wants Jack Dorsey to appear later this month to answer allegations of political bias. Unfortunately, this request seems likely to conflict with Dorsey’s aggressive podcasting schedule.

‘There’s going to be a fight here to weaken it’: Inside the lobbying war over California’s landmark privacy law

Tony Romm reports on the war to replace California’s privacy law with a weaker national law:

To stop the spread of piecemeal state regulation, Facebook, Google and other tech companies have set their sights on the District of Columbia. They have called for a federal privacy law, but with a price: They are urging Congress to effectively invalidate the privacy protections adopted in California and under consideration by its peers. In September, the Internet Association said it supported “preempting state consumer privacy and data security laws” so the rules are “consistent” nationwide.

But the hasty adoption of California’s 24-page privacy law has left many issues unresolved. Some provisions, for example, say both consumers and households can request access to their data — a seemingly minor discrepancy that could open the door for privacy pitfalls, such as roommates or family members seeing information they should not be able to access. Both sides of the fight have called on California’s legislature to take a closer look.

Amy Klobuchar enters 2020 ready to take on Big Tech

Li Zhou and Emily Stewart report that in addition to her own staff, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar plans on attacking Big Tech as part of her presidential campaign:

“We need to put some digital rules into law when it comes to people’s privacy. For too long the big tech companies have been telling you ‘Don’t worry! We’ve got your back!’ while your identities are being stolen and your data is mined,” she said during her launch on Sunday. “Our laws need to be as sophisticated as the people who are breaking them.”

Apple and Google accused of helping ‘enforce gender apartheid’ by hosting Saudi government app that tracks women and stops them leaving the country

Bill Bostock takes a look at Absher, an app from the Saudi Arabian government that allows men to keep tabs on women’s travel, preventing them from leaving the country illegally. It’s available from both Apple and Google, which are both refusing to comment:

Absher also has benign functions — like paying parking fines — but its travel features have been identified by activists and refugees as a major factor in the continued difficulty women have leaving Saudi Arabia.

Neither Apple nor Google responded to repeated requests for comment from INSIDER over several days before the publication of this article.

Elsewhere

Facebook Acquires Visual Shopping Startup to Bolster AI Work

GrokStyle makes tech that lets you take a picture of an object and then find a corresponding object to buy on the internet. Sounds like it could be useful for, say, an Instagram shopping app! Anyway, Facebook bought it, Mark Gurman reports.

Facebook could use the underlying AI technology and GrokStyle’s employees to bolster its own efforts in the field. The startup’s specific technology also makes sense for Facebook Marketplace, the company’s service for buying and selling items from other Facebook users on its social network.

Exclusive: Facebook ex-security chief: How ‘hypertargeting’ threatens democracy

Roger Parloff profiles Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos. Did I mention I’m interviewing Alex at SXSW next month and you can RSVP here?

Says Stamos: “A legitimate criticism that I’ve heard is, ‘Alex, you can’t just be right.’ … I didn’t come up in the corporate world. My job as a consultant was to be 100 percent perfectly honest. These guys in the corporate world learn about how to effect change passive-aggressively, right? Without being in people’s faces. And I’ve never learned that skill. So I pissed them off.”

Facebook reshuffles sales executives: Levy to product, Everson gets SMB

Rob Price reports that Facebook’s sales organization is doing a little reorganizing:

The first big change sees Facebook’s veteran vice president of small business, Dan Levy, move out of the sales organization altogether. He’s now VP of product on ads, where he will “lead the Product Management organization for advertising,” according to his LinkedIn profile, “serving millions of businesses who invest tens of billions of dollars on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger.”

In his absence, the domain of Carolyn Everson, VP of global marketing solutions, has expanded.

Facebook at 15: What I learned when I went inside

Laurie Segall’s documentary about Facebook premiered this weekend; she wrote a somewhat ominous companion piece for CNN:

We drove along talking like that for a little while longer before getting to Facebook’s campus, where he dropped me off. Before he did, he pointed to the giant “Like” sign that stands at the entrance. On the back, the sign still says “Sun Microsystems,” for the Silicon Valley giant that once occupied the space — that is, before it slowly crumbled and eventually sold itself to Oracle.

“They haven’t painted it yet,” he said. “It’s a bit of a reminder that companies come and go right? Like, what was one of the most powerful companies in the Valley – disappeared.”

Apple ‘Black Site’ Gives Contractors Few Perks, Little Security

Provocative detail in Joshua Brustein’s piece on the lives of Apple contractors:

Those who left Apple often say their lives improved. Facebook’s management put signs up around campus reading “Contractors Are People Too,” and contingent workers participated in on-campus arts and crafts activities. Google paid more than competitors and let everyone use the gym, says Nick Wilson, who worked at Apple through Apex, then worked at Facebook, and is now a contractor doing mapping work at Google.

A Secret Facebook Group Of Twitter Personalities Has Been Coordinating Harassment Against Women

Ryan Broderick explores the LOL League, “a shitposting group for some of French media’s most popular Twitter users, where they would coordinate abuse against women, people of color, and the LGBT community.”

Hundreds of testimonies from victims who say they were targeted by the group flooded Twitter all weekend. Slate France contributor Lucile Bellan accused them of years of systemic harassment that undermined her confidence as a journalist. A French marketing manager named Benjamin LeReilly wrote a Medium piece accusing them of anti-gay and anti-feminist harassment that started eight years ago and has gone on for years.

Journalist Melanie Wanga tweeted that she was chased off Twitter by the LOL League in 2013. She described an inner circle of LOL League members surrounded by “cool girls” in French media who protected them and helped them pretend to be liberal and progressive in public.

Reddit raised $300 million at a $3 billion valuation — now it’s ready to take on Facebook and Google

Julia Boorstin has the details on Reddit’s big fundraising round:

The company announced Monday it has raised $300 million at a $3 billion valuation. That’s up from a $1.8 billion valuation when the company took in a $200 million in investment in 2017.

Chinese giant Tencent is the newcomer in this series D round, investing $150 million and joining prior investors in the company. With this financing, the company says it plans to expand internationally and grow its ad platform, targeting the market dominated by Facebook and Google.

Tinder and Grindr face questions over age checks after rape cases

Hookup apps are under pressure in the United Kingdom, Ben Quinn reports:

The UK government is to ask Tinder and Grindr what measures they are taking to ensure child safety, after claims of exploitation on dating apps.

It was reported on Sunday that police have investigated more than 30 cases of child rape since 2015 where victims evaded age checks on dating apps.

Sean Parker’s govtech Brigade breaks up, Pinterest acquires engineers

Pinterest scooped up the engineers behind Brigade, a go-nowhere app for debating politics with friends, Josh Constine reports.

Launches

LinkedIn debuts LinkedIn Live, a new live video broadcast service

What’s the over / under on the first death being broadcast on LinkedIn by the end of 2019?

Launching in beta first in the U.S., LinkedIn Live (as the product is called) will be invite-only. In coming weeks, LinkedIn will also post a contact form for others who want to get in on the action. It’s not clear when and if LinkedIn will make it possible for everyone to create LinkedIn Live videos, but if you consider how it developed its publishing features for written work, that will come later, too.

Initial live content that LinkedIn hopes to broadcast lines up with the kind of subject matter you might already see in LinkedIn’s news feed: the plan is to cover conferences, product announcements, Q&As and other events led by influencers and mentors, office hours from a big tech company, earnings calls, graduation and awards ceremonies and more.

Takes

The new censors won’t delete your words — they’ll drown them out

Anne Applebaum says that “social media has changed the meaning of censorship.”

This idea was brilliantly articulated a couple of years ago by Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor, in an essay that asked “Is the First Amendment obsolete?” Wu pointed out that a state — or, indeed, anyone — that seeks to control information no longer needs bureaucrats or policemen: Instead, the opponents of free speech can drown out ideas and language they don’t like by using robotic tools, fake accounts, or teams of real people operating multiple accounts. They can flood the information space with false, distracting or irrelevant information so that people have trouble understanding what is real and what is fake.

Alternatively, they can use those same robotic tools, fake accounts and dedicated teams to troll individuals with hateful commentary or smears that make them afraid to speak, or difficult to be heard or believed. In the new information world, these are the real threats, both to free speech and to civilized public discourse — even to democracy itself. If we can’t have a public debate because the information space is so polluted, or because people are afraid of the reactions of organized trolls, then we can’t really have meaningful elections anymore, either.

An Open Letter to Facebook from the Mozilla Foundation

The makers of the Firefox browser tell Facebook to accelerate its efforts to protect the platform during elections. Note the vague threat here!

Actions speak louder than words. That’s why you must take action to meaningfully deliver on the commitments made to the EU institutions notably the increased transparency that you’ve promised. Promises and press statements aren’t enough; instead, we need to see real action over the coming months, and we will be exploring ways to hold Facebook accountable if that action isn’t sufficient.

And finally …

Apple to Reward Teen as It Patches FaceTime Bug

This newsletter loves journalism in almost all of its many forms, especially when it comes from precocious children accidentally set loose on tech company campuses. Recently you may have read about 14-year-old Grant Thompson, a freshman at Tucson’s Catalina Foothills High School, who discovered the infamous Apple FaceTime bug that left all our iPhones vulnerable to spying attempts. Apple summoned Grant to Cupertino to earn his reward, and while he was there he did his best Mark Gurman impression, Robert McMillan reports:

“He was pretty excited to meet with someone from Apple,” she said. “He asked him a few questions, such as ‘When are you coming out with your AirPod 2s?’”

“The answer was ‘Apple does not comment on future products,’” Ms. Thompson said.

Best of luck with freshman year, Grant, and I invite you to check out our available job openings at The Verge.

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Send me tips, comments, questions, and your secret Bezos theories: casey@theverge.com.

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