Donald Trump just wants to be everyone’s best bud and he’d rather they skip the formalities and give him a call on his personal cellphone. For many reasons, this is very worrisome to the people who get paid to worry about this sort of thing.
Let’s just say that since the day Trump was elected, he and his administration haven’t been particularly great with national security protocols. Even if we ignore whatever the hell is going on with the Russia investigation, there are too many examples of reckless incidents with secure information to list them all. Remember the time his people gathered around documents about the North Korea nuclear program and used their smartphone flashlights to be able to see them? That was fun.
But Trump’s personal phone has been a particular headache for security personnel since day one. At first, he fought to keep his unsecured Android. Later, reports emerged that he’d moved to an iPhone, which is good since it’s generally more secure. We’re going to assume that he’s not just using a stock iPhone, surely the Secret Service was able to persuade him to use some sort of modified device. Staff has not convinced him to give up sending erratic tweets out of the blue just yet, but if current reports are true, Twitter is the only app on his phone. At least that narrows down potential vulnerabilities.
According to a report from the Associated Press, Trump’s insistance that world leaders bypass other channels and call him up direct is becoming a problem for officials. It’s not just a security issue but a major problem for coordinating diplomatic communications. Contact between world leaders has traditionally been a process that’s deliberated by experts and planned for in advance. Not to mention the fact that notes are usually provided to the public about what was discussed. Trump likes to do things alone.
We know that he has told the leaders of Canada and Mexico to hit him up on his personal cell instead of the White House line. And this weekend, French officials confirmed that he told his new best friend President Emmanuel Macron to call him directly any time. We know that Trump is really, really bad at diplomacy in public, so it’s reasonable to think that he’d be worse in private. Remember the first time he called the prime minister of Australia and just started ranting, then hung up on him?
But back to the security issues. We know world leaders’ cellphones can be hacked, because we did it to Angela Merkel a few years ago. For most of his presidency, Obama complained that he was stuck with a basic Blackberry, but he understood the issues. In 2016, protocols changed, new tech was installed, and some restrictions were eased. Staff started using iPhones, but Obama stuck with his modified Blackberry. Few people had his number. All communication with other nations has been handled through a few secure land lines in the White House for decades.
“If you are speaking on an open line, then it’s an open line, meaning those who have the ability to monitor those conversations are doing so,” Derek Chollet, a former Pentagon adviser and National Security Council official, tells the Associated Press. Indeed, there are a number of methods that hackers have used to break into personal communications, and all they needed was a phone number. Even with great security, there’s always a way in. The FBI couldn’t figure out how to break the iPhone’s encryption so they paid a still undisclosed entity $900,000 to do it for them.
The White House would not say if records are being kept of Trump’s personal cellphone calls. The Presidential Records Act of 1981, requires all records of the president’s communication to be preserved, even his tweets. The act was updated in 2014 to specify that personal emails were also to be preserved, but there’s no specification on direct cellphone communications.
At least, it appears his cellphone has the location tracking disabled, something you can’t say for his staff. We used to have to rely on whether a tweet was coming from an Android or an iPhone to know if Trump was doing it himself. Now that everyone in the White House is on iPhones, it appears location tracking is the best method. The unhinged tweets just say they’re coming from Twitter for iPhone, while the ho-hum, down to business tweets show the location they were sent from.