When Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, he reportedly handed his fiancé Hatice Cengiz his iPhone. He told Cengiz, as she wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, to “alert the Turkish authorities if I did not hear from him soon.”
As we now know, Khashoggi, who wrote critically of the Saudi Government and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, never emerged from the consulate. Most reports say Khashoggi was tortured and killed. The Saudi Consulate recently agreed to let third-party investigators into the building, but not before reportedly inviting in the cleaners.
It’s a tragic and complex story with numerous players and accounts. The Saudi Government has denied any involvement, while the Turkish Government insists they know who may have murdered Khashoggi and why. Turkish authorities also claimed, according to a report in the Turkish newspaper Sabah Daily, that there’s digital evidence of the crime.
The reports, which Sabah Daily says emanated from Reuters and Reuters says emanated from Sabah Daily, report that Khashoggi was wearing a black Apple Watch and that he set it to record as he entered the consulate. It reportedly recorded Khashoggi’s alleged beating and brutal murder. More incredibly, they claimed that the Apple Watch automatically transferred the audio recording to Khashoggi’s phone, which was allegedly still outside the consulate with Cengiz. Authorities then somehow unlocked the phone without Khashoggi’s fingerprint or face (using FaceID) and retrieved a portion of the recordings.
While it’s definitely possible for technology to inadvertently record all kinds of activities, even incriminating ones, and Khashoggi was, at some point, photographed wearing an Apple Watch Series 3 with the red dot on the crown (which means it has cellular connectivity capabilities), I agree with other tech experts that this Khashoggi theory tests the bounds of believability.
As I poured over Cengiz’s tweets and her op-ed about Khashoggi and his disappearance, I noticed Cengiz never mentioned the journalist leaving his phone with her. Also, from the way she described his reminder to contact her, “if I did not hear from him soon,” it sounds like he planned to communicate with her from inside the building, very likely with his phone. Khashoggi’s Apple Watch’s cell service would not have worked in Istanbul since cellular support for Apple Watch is not available in Turkey.
In addition, there’s no native voice recording feature on the Apple Watch. Apple’s audio recording utility, Voice Memo lives on the iPhone, but there’s is no Apple Watch version. However, there are other audio recording apps, like Voice Record, that do include local recording on the Apple Watch. With Voice Record, I can record direct to my Apple Watch’s local storage or use it to remotely control Voice Record on my iPhone Xs Max.
It is possible that Khashoggi could’ve set his Apple Watch Series 3 to record using an app like Voice Record and, depending on how long he was there, it could’ve kept recording until it ran out of space or someone stopped it.
However, if Khashoggi did record something locally, it’s likely it never left the Apple Watch. If you record audio on the Apple Watch using an app like Voice Record, it still has to sync back to the cloud in order for the iPhone to download it. Without a cellular or Wi-Fi connection, the recording can’t make it to the cloud. To get the Apple Watch on the consulate’s Wi-Fi would’ve meant getting Khashoggi’s iPhone connected to the consulate Wi-Fi first. Even with a good connection to the cloud, uploading a local recording from the Apple Watch to the cloud, in Voice App at least, is a manual process.
The remote recording is another possibility, but it’s also an unlikely one. First, Khashoggi’s Apple Watch and iPhone would have to be within Bluetooth range.
Situated on a fairly residential street, the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul is not a very large structure. From the center of the building to the street where Cengiz was waiting is roughly 50 feet. That’s actually well-within the Apple Watch Series 3’s Bluetooth 4.2, 100-ft range. Of course, that’s assuming there are no connectivity-killing obstructions in the way. As I could see from pictures of the consulate, it’s a cement and heavily fortified building that probably blocks those signals long before they reach the street.
Finally, there’s the phone. If Cengiz had it in her hands and even if she had the phone unlocked, it would have to be running the Voice Record app in order for the Apple Watch to remotely control it.
It would be incredible and horrifying if the Turkish Police had that recording, but I’m fairly certain they don’t. And yet, I’m left wondering why they cooked up that story and what kernel of truth might lie beneath it. Is Khashoggi’s phone in Cengiz’s possession? Did she or the authorities find something of interest on it? Or is this simply a way of trying to smoke out the perpetrators? Claim technology caught them red-handed so they’ll step forward and confess.