Early on Sunday morning, North Korea test-fired a missile in the direction of Japan. It was Saturday evening in Florida, where Donald Trump was entertaining Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Trump and Abe discussed how to respond to the provocation over dinner in the dining room at Mar-a-Lago, the private club Trump has dubbed the “winter White House,” surrounded by club members and waitstaff. And according to CNN, aides used flashlight feature of their phones to help illuminate documents in the candlelit setting.
That raised some eyebrows because cellphones are vulnerable to hacking, and it’s a safe bet that the world’s intelligence services have been working overtime to hack into the phones of Trump aides. So when aides pointed their cellphones at the documents — cellphones that also have built-in cameras — they may have given foreign spies a close-up look at Trump’s briefing materials.
This appears to some people to be a major security risk. But what’s not clear is whether any classified information was being discussed in the Mar-a-Lago dining room. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer says that Trump was briefed in a secure setting prior to the dinner and the dinner discussion was just focused on the logistics of his joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe.
“It’s my understanding that no classified information was discussed,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a Tuesday press conference. “Talking about foreign policy at the dinner table is perfectly appropriate.”
Still, critics say the incident reflects a broader problem with Trump’s careless handling of sensitive information. Media reports suggest that Trump still uses a personal Android smartphone that’s likely running out-of-date software, creating the possibility that a foreign intelligence agency could hack the phone and use its microphone to listen in on private conversations.
But here, too, key details are missing. We don’t know how often Trump uses his personal cellphone, or whether he takes it into rooms where sensitive information is discussed. Two Democratic senators this week sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis seeking details about when and how Trump was using his personal phone.
Cellphones are a security risk — especially near the president
A modern smartphone is a complex piece of technology. Its software has millions of lines of code, making it a near certainty that it has undiscovered security vulnerabilities.
There’s a thriving underground market for security vulnerabilities in popular software platforms. Intelligence agencies and criminal hackers alike pay thousands of dollars for information that could allow them to hack into otherwise secure systems like the Android and iOS operating systems.
We got an inside look at how the National Security Agency does this in 2013, when documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed the agency spends millions of dollars for undisclosed security flaws. It’s a safe bet that the governments of Russia, China, and other US adversaries have similar programs.
Once a vulnerability becomes widely known, the company behind the targeted software will push out an update to fix the problem. So it’s common for intelligence agencies to hold some vulnerabilities in reserve so they can be used against the highest-value targets.
It’s hard to imagine a higher-value target than the smartphones of Donald Trump and his senior aides.
Information about America’s president is so valuable to foreign governments that it’s worth creating custom malware designed specifically for the president’s phone. Preventing this kind of attack is extremely difficult if the president is using a standard-issue smartphone running a suite of popular applications — all vulnerable to attack.
And of course, hacking the phone of a senior Trump aide could be almost as valuable as hacking Trump’s own phone. If a foreign government compromised a smartphone belonging to Trump strategist Steve Bannon, for example, they could activate the phone’s microphone and listen in on every meeting where Bannon had the phone in his pocket.
This is a big reason that security experts in the federal government discourage the president from using a cellphone. The president and others are required to surrender their cellphones before they enter the Situation Room or other secure facilities where classified information is discussed.
Last year, President Obama described what happened when he upgraded from his trusty BlackBerry to a modern touchscreen smartphone:
“I get the thing and they’re like, well, Mr. President for security reasons, this is a great phone, state of the art, but it doesn’t take pictures, you can’t text, the phone doesn’t work, you can’t play your music on it.”
We know that Trump was issued a special secure cellphone when he became president — likely one with the same severe usage restrictions as Obama’s phone. This phone likely didn’t allow Trump to tweet, and Trump sees tweets as a key way to stay in touch with his supporters. Which might explain why he has reportedly continued to use his personal Android phone.