Yikes: Trump Ignoring Advice, Using Unsecure Cell Phone Without 'Sophisticated Security Features'?

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Posted: May 22, 2018 2:01 PM
Yikes: Trump Ignoring Advice, Using Unsecure Cell Phone Without 'Sophisticated Security Features'?

Two thoughts instantly spring to mind when reading Politico's big scoop (which is in some ways a follow-up to this reporting) today: First, it's really alarming that the President of the United States is not using the most secure, best-encrypted phones known to mankind in his daily communications.  And the fact that he's reportedly eschewing available and superior technology deliberately, out of "convenience," is extraordinarily reckless.  Second, one of the central reasons so many people harshly and rightly criticized Hillary Clinton in 2016 -- including Donald Trump -- was her breathtaking use of an unsecure homebrew server to transmit thousands of classified emails, in order to avoid public records requests and accountability.  This gross negligence compromised national security secrets and very likely handed highly sensitive material to America's adversaries.  Lock her up, they chanted.  What will they make of this?

President Donald Trump uses a White House cellphone that isn’t equipped with sophisticated security features designed to shield his communications, according to two senior administration officials — a departure from the practice of his predecessors that potentially exposes him to hacking or surveillance. The president, who relies on cellphones to reach his friends and millions of Twitter followers, has rebuffed staff efforts to strengthen security around his phone use, according to the administration officials. The president uses at least two iPhones, according to one of the officials. The phones — one capable only of making calls, the other equipped only with the Twitter app and preloaded with a handful of news sites — are issued by White House Information Technology and the White House Communications Agency, an office staffed by military personnel that oversees White House telecommunications. While aides have urged the president to swap out the Twitter phone on a monthly basis, Trump has resisted their entreaties, telling them it was “too inconvenient,” the same administration official said. The president has gone as long as five months without having the phone checked by security experts.

Even the "convenience" line is an echo of Hillary, although in this case it's probably actually true. Setting up an entire email server in your house, then scrambling to permanently delete its contents after its existence is publicly revealed, is basically the polar opposite of "convenience." Plus, her "one device" explanation was a flagrant lie. It was about control all along. In Trump's case, by contrast, he probably does see this as an issue of convenience. But...that's not good enough.  When you are president, a great many inconveniences are countenanced and endured in the name of national security.  If Trump is actively disregarding experts' best assessments in order to keep utilizing subpar technology for no good reason is extremely irresponsible.  I suppose it's also true that another difference between this situation and Hillary's email mess is that Trump does not appear to have lied about it endlessly.  That's something to hang your red baseball cap on, I guess, but the underlying issue is the real problem.  More details

It is unclear how often Trump’s call-capable phones, which are essentially used as burner phones, are swapped out.  President Barack Obama handed over his White House phones every 30 days to be examined by telecommunications staffers for hacking and other suspicious activity, according to an Obama administration official. The White House declined to comment for this story, but a senior West Wing official said the call-capable phones “are seamlessly swapped out on a regular basis through routine support operations. Because of the security controls of the Twitter phone and the Twitter account, it does not necessitate regular change-out.” Trump’s call-capable cellphone has a camera and microphone, unlike the White House-issued cellphones used by Obama. Keeping those components creates a risk that hackers could use them to access the phone and monitor the president’s movements. The GPS location tracker, however — which can be used to track the president’s whereabouts — is disabled on Trump’s devices. The West Wing official refuted the idea that the presence of a camera and microphone on the president’s phone posed any risk, telling POLITICO, “Due to inherent capabilities and advancement in technologies, these devices are more secure than any Obama-era devices.”

Okay, so his call-capable phones are swapped out with some regularity, according to a White House source, but not his 'Twitter phone.'  Why on earth not?  Also, why on earth would they give him a phone with a camera feature?  Built-in cameras are notorious gateways for hackers, as are microphones, frankly.  As for that last damage control quote, I don't doubt that technological advancements have made devices more secure than they were even a few years ago.  But as Allahpundit reasons, wouldn't the same apply to hacking technology?  These are not frivolous concerns:

Former national security officials are virtually unanimous in their agreement about the dangers posed by cellphones, which are vulnerable to hacking by domestic and foreign actors who would want to listen in on the president’s conversations or monitor his movements. “Foreign adversaries seeking intelligence about the U.S. are relentless in their pursuit of vulnerabilities in our government’s communications networks, and there is no more sought-after intelligence target than the president of the United States,” said Nate Jones, former director of counterterrorism on the National Security Council in the Obama administration and the founder of Culper Partners, a consulting firm. While the president has the authority to override or ignore the advice provided by aides and advisers for reasons of comfort or convenience, Jones said, “doing so could pose significant risks to the country.”

This was exactly the argument against Hillary Clinton's email misconduct, with Republicans arguing that a high-ranking government official putting national secrets in jeopardy for her own purposes was disqualifying, if not illegal. Depending on what President Trump is talking or messaging about on his under-secure phones, the scope of possible breaches is conceivably even worse. It may be within Trump's authority to overrule anyone on this front, but it's a terrible, terrible idea; he should be criticized for it, and change course.  Indeed, that hope may well be the reason why top aides decided to leak the story in the first place.  Exasperated, they might be communicating with their boss through the press, which may be dysfunctional but effective.  

Finally, it's true that there is no evidence of successful hacking attempts against the president's devices (that we know of, at least), but why take the risk?  And aside from pure partisan expedience or knee-jerk tribalism, why would any Republican who correctly assailed Mrs. Clinton over her email server defend or ignore this?  Either it's important for extremely powerful American government officials to follow proper security protocols in disseminating sensitive information, or it's not.  That determination shouldn't depend on the party affiliation of the leader in question.