Cell phones are becoming more and more of a liability in Washington. Omorosa used hers to record Chief of Staff John Kelly firing her, supposedly in the White House Situation Room. The government prohibits the use of Chinese-made Huawei and ZTE phones due to fears that China has built security flaws into the phones.
And according to the New York Times, President Donald Trump continues to insist on using his personal iPhone to make and receive calls to and from his old friends.
Trump isn’t the only washingtonian getting spied on
It’s a pretty safe bet that foreign intelligence services are listening in to any conversation you have on a cell phone in downtown Washington, DC. As the Department of Homeland Security revealed in March, the city is crawling with Stingrays, the device officially called an International Mobile Subscriber Identity Catcher. These relatively cheap devices trick your phone into thinking the device is actually a cell tower, allowing the undetected interception of a call made from a phone nearby.
The devices are well-known to law enforcement and intelligence services, who use them (one assumes) frequently. This fact makes it all the more baffling that Trump would do this.
The Times story claims the president has two NSA-hardened iPhones, plus his personal phone. It’s fair to point out that Trump has publicly denied the Times‘ report, tweeting Thursday that “I rarely use a cellphone, & when I do it’s government authorized.”
But the Times insists that it has multiple sources (speaking anonymously, of course) who said that not only does the president insist on using his own phone, foreign governments know this as well. The sources say the American intelligence community “learned that China and Russia were eavesdropping on the president’s cellphone calls from human sources inside foreign governments and intercepting communications between foreign officials.”
The inherent risk of mobile phones
Cell phones present a number of security flaws. Even in “airplane mode,” they can take photos of classified documents or record conversations. They can also be turned into a listening device without the phone’s owner knowing anything was going on. For those reasons and more, mobile phone lockers have sprung up throughout the corridors of the Pentagon to keep them out of office suites. At the headquarters of many intelligence and law enforcement agencies, phones are not even allowed inside the building at all.
Trump has the right to be foolish, but he shouldn’t be
But the president gets to make the rules, and he can break them if he wants. Even if it’s a really, really bad idea.
And it’s a really, really bad idea for the president to talk on a cell phone, especially in Washington. Everything he says, but particularly the things he says in private, has intelligence value to an adversary. Intelligence analysts put tremendous effort into studying how leaders make decisions in the hopes that it will allow them to predict how that leader will react to a particular scenario. Having recordings of the president working through his decision making with a friend is just a goldmine. Especially for a president whose unpredictability is part of his mystique. And his power.
I’d really like to believe the president, especially since he so gleefully led chants of “lock her up” over the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal. But given what we know of his media habits, its hard do do so. So let me add my voice, for what it’s worth, to the chorus of condemnation: Mr. President, please stick to the secure modes of communication. We’ll all be better off for it.