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For the sake of national security, Donald Trump needs to trade in his cellphone

He’s going to have to give up most of the features that make a smartphone smart.

Photo illustration by Recode (with photos from Getty Images, Samsung and BlackBerry)

The question of what phone a president carries — and what he or she does with it — is a serious matter of national security.

Take a president who likes to make policy announcements on Twitter at three in the morning and the matter becomes even more urgent.

After all, when Donald Trump tweets, the stock market shifts. If someone were to read what he was preparing to tweet by breaking into his smartphone and using keylogging software, even with just a 30-second head start, it could make some people very rich and potentially cause serious damage to the national economy.

And, of course, there’s the matter of the president’s physical safety, as well as the risk of classified information being compromised and of someone trying to hack the phone to get the president’s account credentials.

As president-elect, Trump has continued to use his Android device as his primary means for both keeping in touch with associates and expressing his displeasure with news outlets and “Saturday Night Live.”

But experts say that, as president, Trump really needs to use something a whole lot more secure.

We’ve asked the transition team what kind of smartphone Donald Trump intends to use when he assumes the Oval Office on Friday and have yet to get a response.

Trump won’t have to figure this out on his own. There’s even an agency specifically tasked with supporting the president’s telecommunications needs, the White House Communications Agency. And the Secret Service, which has to protect the president, is likely to weigh in as well.

As to whether government agencies can force Trump to give up his current phone, it’s complicated. Trump may resist technical security measures imposed on him by the Secret Service. However, by law, their protection of the president is mandatory and cannot be declined.

(That said, the president appoints the director of the Secret Service, as well as the secretary of Homeland Security and other department heads, so the power dynamics are less than simple.)

Here’s what outside security experts say Trump’s phone should look like:

The president’s phone should not be connected to the internet, according to Matthew Green, a cryptographer and professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth reiterating. Everything connected to the internet is vulnerable to attack.

That means no tweeting. It also means Trump is probably going to have to go Android, since it’s not possible to sufficiently customize an iPhone. Instead, Trump may end up with a phone that, like Obama’s, can really only be used to call or message a small group of trusted aides and family.

If Trump or his aides insist on carrying commercial-grade phones, they should never be taken into high-level meetings, since there are known exploits that can power on the device’s microphone, Tom Lowenthal, a digital security technologist at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Recode.

During the Obama administration, there were boxes outside the rooms in the Old Executive Office Building where cellphones could be stored when even the most basic national security matters might be discussed.

Cellphones were kept out of White House meetings when matters of national security were being discussed.
Ina Fried for Recode

Classified data networks should not be connected to the phone, including email servers and document-sharing platforms. Nor is it a good idea to get around that by setting up a private email server. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s phone definitely shouldn’t have GPS and, Green warned, should be hardened to prevent attacks via the communications chips that are part of a modern phone.

Trump can also draw on the significant thought that went into figuring out what President Obama could safely use.

When Obama took office in 2008, he desperately wanted to keep his beloved BlackBerry. After some wrangling and security work, Obama got a specially designed BlackBerry, albeit one that bore little resemblance to his previous smartphone.

The president’s BlackBerry was protected by custom encryption software and could only receive calls and messages from a selection of family and close advisers who were also given special phones, since both ends need to use the same encryption to have secure communications.

Obama also spent time on an iPad, which he used for personal web surfing and to read up on what people outside his circle were thinking.

Last year, President Obama upgraded to an undisclosed new smartphone, though again most of the features, like the camera, were still turned off.

“It doesn't take pictures, you can't text, the phone doesn't work ... you can't play your music on it," Obama quipped during an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”

As for Twitter, even if Trump loses his smartphone tweeting privileges, his staff probably shouldn’t let the president dictate tweets from his account with their smartphones either, since their phones are no less vulnerable to hackers than any other commercial-grade device.

So as head of state, Trump may be stuck tweeting from a desktop computer, which could mean the end of his middle-of-the-night social media habit. But then again, Trump’s rise to the White House has been defined by the breaking of precedent, belied predictions and scandalous hacking. Once he assumes the most powerful office in the world, literally anything could happen.

Update: The Associated Press reported this afternoon that Trump “told a friend that he had given up his phone, as security agencies had urged him to do,” citing an anonymous source.

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