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Debunking The Myths About Jamal Khashoggi's Apple Watch

Turkish investigators have suggested in a Turkish newspaper report that the Apple Watch has an audio recording that proves Saudi Arabian involvement. But it is far more complicated than that.

Vishal Mathur | News18.com@vishalmathur85

Updated:October 15, 2018, 10:05 AM IST
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Debunking The Myths About Jamal Khashoggi's Apple Watch
Jamal Khashoggi at the Al Sharq Forum in May, is seen wearing the Apple Watch with a red ring on the crown, indicating it is a Cellular variant. (Photo: CNN)
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Even as the mystery around the disappearance, and the presumed death of news of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul remains unsolved, there is now a new complication in the midst of it all. Jamal Khashoggi’s Apple Watch, which Turkish authorities would want us to believe, will be the crucial piece in the jigsaw. It might well be eventually. However, there is considerable apprehension about what the Turkish authorities are suggesting at the moment. We try to decipher the tech fact from the reports that we are hearing thus far.

Turkish newspaper Sabah suggests that Jamal Khashoggi's Apple Watch recorded everything that happened inside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul on October 2. The newspaper also suggests that Turkish investigators have gotten their hands on an audio recording which was done via the Apple Watch, which indicates that a team of hitmen sent by Saudi Arabia killed the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The report has also been published by The Washington Post, a newspaper that Khashoggi also wrote for. It all seems very plausible at first, but now let us get into the specifics.

But where did the recordings come from?

The Sabah newspaper suggests in its report that Turkish authorities have in their possession an audio recording from the Apple Watch. There are doubts about how they got access to this audio file in question—from the iPhone or from Jamal Khashoggi’s iCloud account or some other service?

Secondly, the Sabah report suggests Khashoggi switched on the audio recording feature on his Apple Watch, before entering the Saudi Arabian embassy for what seemed like a fairly harmless appointment for some documentation work. The Watch is then believed to have recorded the "interrogation, torture and killing" of the journalist, and the file was sent to his iPhone, which was with his fiancée outside the consulate, and also to his Apple's iCloud account.

Two things to consider here. First, the Apple Watch doesn’t have the Voice Memos app, which is there on the iPhone however. We checked different Apple Watch versions running the newest watchOS 5 and the previous watchOS 4 software, but we couldn’t find the app. Nevertheless, it could be possible that Khashoggi was using a third party audio recording app on the Watch, which may or may not be able to upload the audio file to the iCloud account. Remember, not all apps have access to the iCloud account storage by default, and in many cases, files need to be uploaded manually.

Important to also note that for an audio recording to be completed, saved and transferred, Khashoggi may very well have had to press the “stop” button in the app on his Watch—something that doesn’t seem very likely, considering it is believed to have been quite hectic in there at that time.

Subsequently, is extremely unlikely that the Bluetooth connectivity would have worked considering the iPhone this Watch was paired with was outside the building. Even in our home, leaving the Apple Watch in one place and taking the iPhone two rooms away in my apartment results in loss of connection—Bluetooth connectivity is best used in close proximity.

If the Turkish authorities did get access to the audio files from the iCloud account, chances are Khashoggi’s fiancé might have known the passwords. If not, it would not be easy for the Turkish authorities to break into an Apple iCloud account—something the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) discovered when they wanted to break into an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino, California in 2016.

At present, Apple has not issued a comment on the situation, and it isn’t clear if the Turkish authorities have reached out to the company requesting for the iCloud access or not.

The other inaccuracy in the Sabah report is the suggestion that Khashoggi's attackers spotted the Watch and tried to access it. They made random attempts at cracking the passcode, but were unable to get access. Therefore, they used Khashoggi's fingerprints to unlock it—and proceeded to deleted some but not all of its files. We can debunk this theory right here—the Apple Watch does not have a fingerprint recognition feature, unlike some iPhones which have the fingerprint sensor known as the Touch ID.

Before anyone suggests that Khashoggi was instead using the Apple Watch with the cellular feature that connects to the mobile network on its own, can become a phone and internet device in its own right and doesn’t need Bluetooth connectivity to the iPhone—we would like to debunk that theory too. Yes, the Cellular version of the Watch does exactly as described, but there is one fine detail to consider. If Khashoggi was indeed wearing the Cellular version of the Watch, it would have been registered to a cellular service provider in the US—Khashoggi did spend a lot of time in the US. It is not possible for the cellular feature on the Watch to work in Istanbul.

“Cellular roaming isn't supported outside your carrier network coverage area. Unlike iPhone, there isn't a worldwide Apple Watch model that supports all cellular bands used globally, so it isn't possible for Apple Watch to roam,” say Apple’s support documents for the Apple Watch.

More interesting, Apple has never sold and also currently doesn’t sell a cellular variant of the Apple Watch in Turkey. A cursory glance at the Apple website for Turkey clearly suggests that the company doesn’t have partnerships with any Turkish cellular service providers for the Watch—the Series 3, the Series 4 and the Series 4 Nike+ edition. Simply put, you cannot use the Apple Watch to connect to the internet anywhere in Turkey, including Istanbul, unless it is paired with the Apple Watch.

What no one seems to be considering is the fact that embassy security rules may have required Khashoggi to remove all smart wearables, such as the Apple Watch, before entering the premises. This is a routine security procedure in many embassies in many countries around the world.

Also Read | Fitbit Data Helps Solve Murder; Restarts Debate About Tech Companies Helping Law Enforcement

Also Read | Apple Watch as an ECG device is Truly a Step Forward, But Doesn’t Replace Your Doctor
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