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Trump dials up cell use as mystery phone spy devices spotted around D.C.

Trump dials up cell use as mystery phone spy devices spotted around D.C.
[Photo: Shealah Craighead/The White House/Flickr]

President Trump is using his personal cellphone more heavily lately to contact friends and informal advisors outside the White House, according to CNN, raising fresh doubts about White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s ability to control access to the president, and new security questions too.

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“He may be keeping things from his chief of staff, but he will elicit the interest of foreign intelligence services,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN’s Don Lemon. “This is potentially a gold mine of intelligence for them. Even if he is using some kind of secure app, there’s all kinds of inferential things you can derive from the fact he’s doing that … even if you don’t get the content.”

The vulnerability of Trump’s personal phone coincides with a persistent threat: Just this month, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that it’s spotted unauthorized cell-site simulators, also known as IMSI catchers or Stingrays, around Washington, D.C. The devices–which can cost from $1,000 to about $200,000 and are commonly the size of a briefcase–imitate cell towers, enticing phones to connect to them, which can allow a user to locate the phone or even potentially spy on calls and texts.

While they are increasingly used clandestinely by law enforcement–who are the only authorized users by U.S. law–it’s unclear who’s operating the devices around Washington, or where they are even precisely located. The mystery dates back at least to 2014, when researchers detected suspected unauthorized devices near locations like the White House, the Supreme Court, the Commerce Department and the Pentagon. Many foreign embassies are also thought to operate their own powerful cell tower simulators. In a March 26 letter, DHS Acting Undersecretary Christopher Krebs told Senator Ron Wyden that unauthorized Stingrays present “safety, economic and privacy risks.”

In response, House Reps Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Bennie Thompson (D-MS) sent a letter this month to FCC chair Ajit Pai asking him to “address the prevalence of what could be hostile, foreign cell-site simulators, or Stingrays, surveilling Americans in the nation’s Capital.”

Back in January, security concerns prompted Kelly to ban the use of personal cell phones for West Wing staffers, over objections by some that they’d be cut off from children and other family members during the busy workday. (Secret Service-issued phones are not intended for personal use, and can’t accommodate texting.) “The security and integrity of the technology systems at the White House is a top priority for the Trump administration and therefore starting next week the use of all personal devices for both guests and staff will no longer be allowed in the West Wing,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement at the time.

Not much concrete detail has been released about the phone Trump is currently using, or what security measures may be employed when he uses it. Former President Barack Obama used a BlackBerry with special security enhancements while he was in office. Last year, Trump was reported by Axios to have switched from an Android phone to an iPhone with only one app installed: Twitter.

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