from the ill-communication dept
By now the President’s unwillingness to adhere to anything close to reasonable security when using his mobile phones has been made pretty clear. Whereas the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and the NSA usually work in concert providing state leaders with “hardened” devices that are heavily encrypted, routinely updated, and frequently swapped out, Trump has refused to use these more secure DMCC-S devices (effectively a Samsung Galaxy S4 device utilizing Samsung’s Knox security architecture), because it might infringe on his ability to Tweet.
Past reports have suggested that security advisors have at least convinced him to use two iPhones: one locked down specifically for Twitter, and the other specifically tasked with making phone calls. But as a new report this week from the New York Times makes clear, Trump’s lax phone security is being pretty routinely taken advatage of by foreign intelligence agencies:
“When President Trump calls old friends on one of his iPhones to gossip, gripe or solicit their latest take on how he is doing, American intelligence reports indicate that Chinese spies are often listening ? and putting to use invaluable insights into how to best work the president and affect administration policy, current and former American officials said.”
Senators sent a letter to Trump back in April expressing concern at his abysmal operational security, but that message still hasn’t gotten through to the aggressively cocksure President, according to the Times report:
“Mr. Trump?s aides have repeatedly warned him that his cellphone calls are not secure, and they have told him that Russian spies are routinely eavesdropping on the calls, as well. But aides say the voluble president, who has been pressured into using his secure White House landline more often these days, has still refused to give up his iPhones. White House officials say they can only hope he refrains from discussing classified information when he is on them.”
The Times quotes numerous anonymous experts who say their claims come from sources in these foreign governments. And while the Times story doesn’t get technical about how foreign intelligence agencies are tapping into the calls, many surmise they’re exploiting, among other things, the cellular network Signaling System 7 (SS7, or Common Channel Signalling System 7 in the US) flaw that the industry has been refusing to fix for the better part of the last decade. The flaw can be exploited to track user location, dodge encryption, and even record private conversations if strict countermeasures aren’t adhered to.
That said, security experts were quick to point out there’s an ocean of ways that foreign intelligence agencies could be intercepting Trump’s calls in transit via passive decryption as the calls travel between the phone and cellular tower:
4) Passive decryption.
The Russian and Chinese embassies are likely sucking up all GSM/LTE bands in the district. Modern iPhones would do most voice as VoLTE, meaning this would require a passive attack against handshake or KASUMI cipher. Seems most likely.
— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) October 24, 2018
Of course intel agencies could also be targeting his most-commonly called individuals on the other end. As is his way, the President was quick to issue a Tweet insisting the entire story was false…while using his iPhone:
The so-called experts on Trump over at the New York Times wrote a long and boring article on my cellphone usage that is so incorrect I do not have time here to correct it. I only use Government Phones, and have only one seldom used government cell phone. Story is soooo wrong!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 25, 2018
To let Trump’s ego dictate his security practices is obviously still problematic, potentially even to the point of putting lives at risk. It’s also incredibly ironic given all the time Trump spends complaining about potential Chinese spying habits, including the Trump-driven blacklist of all Huawei products in the United States. It’s a blackballing that’s not based on much in the way of evidence, but is certainly appreciated in a protectionist capacity by the U.S. networking and cell phone vendors who didn’t want to have to compete with cheaper Chinese gear. Huawei, for its part, was quick to make light of the report:
China spokeswomen Hua Chunying on the NYT Trump iPhone tapping story: "If they are very worried about iPhones being tapped, they can use Huawei." pic.twitter.com/lZ48beuA7e
— Luna Lin (@LunaLinCN) October 25, 2018
Trump’s phone habits continues to be a giant middle finger toward transparency (like adhering to the Presidential Records Act) and fundamental opsec, but neither Trump nor the adults tasked with his daily supervision appear to much care.