By going public with alleged extortion attempts, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos may have thwarted the National Enquirer’s attempts to quash the Washington Post’s probe into the tabloid media company’s practices, but the incident also turned a harsh spotlight on unethical, potentially illegal acts and ratcheted up concerns about privacy.
In a Thursday blog post, Bezos revealed that “the top people at the National Enquirer” had made him an offer that he indeed could refuse: stop looking into the questionable practices of the tabloid and its parent company American Media, Inc. (AMI) after the Enquirer published some of Bezos’s personal texts.
They said “they will publish the personal photos unless [investigator and security specialist] Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we ‘have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces,’” Bezos wrote, noting that AMI had already struck an immunity deal with the Justice Department “related to their role in the so-called ‘Catch and Kill’ process on behalf of President Trump and his election campaign” and is the subject of the investigations “for various actions they’ve taken on behalf of the Saudi government.”
Instead of bending to the threats of personal embarrassment – the photos are intimate and revealing and come at a time when he and his wife are divorcing – Bezos decided to publicize them instead, including in his post correspondence from AMI Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard and Deputy General Counsel Jon Fine.
Bezos’ story is a familiar one – except maybe the part where a media company is behind the alleged blackmail attempt. “Anyone can be caught in a privacy nightmare such as the one Bezos is facing,” said Joseph Carson, chief security scientist at Thycotic, who noted that “such blackmail attempts to extort financial awards” are quite common, but disturbing coming from a media outlet.
“If a photo is stored in the cloud, it should be assumed there is a risk of compromise and the photo being leaked,” said Chris Morales, head of security analytics at Vectra, who advises first not to take photos. “If the photo must be taken, then it would be wise to not store them in a place where they could be compromised.”
That might include storing them “securely at home or in a secure respectable cloud environment and keep[ing] them password protected with encryption,” said Carson, adding that the matter requires full investigation.
“Should everyone be texting on [secure messaging app] Signal? No. [But] you should be using the appropriate messaging application that meets your security and privacy needs,” said Carson. “In today’s world, privacy is almost no longer an option, if you want to keep information private then you must use an encrypted communication method.”
"It comes down to just using the tools at your disposal when it comes to potentially confidential or compromising data, photos or otherwise,” said David Ginsburg, vice president of marketing at Cavirin. “This includes how you set your passwords, how you authenticate (i.e., Instagram now supports two-factor authentication), who you share your accounts with, [and] to whom you send text or photos, etc.”
Ginsburg said he hoped Bezos will eventually share the results of his team’s investigation into AMI. “Not everyone has the wherewithal to do what Jeff Bezos did, and I applaud him for this,” he said.