The president had been warned. The New York Times now reports that American spy agencies have learned that China and Russia have been eavesdropping on President Trump’s personal calls to friends and colleagues from one of his iPhones, in an effort to influence U.S. policy.
“This stunning revelation by the NYT is one that has sweeping ramifications for intelligence and the security of the American people,” says former White House chief information officer Theresa Payton in an email to Fast Company.
Trump reportedly has three iPhones, but only two of them are equipped with security features that have been added by the National Security Agency. One of the secure phones is strictly intended for tweeting, and only over Wi-Fi networks.
His third phone is said to be as unsecured as any regular iPhone. Former administration officials said that in spite of their repeated warnings that spies might listen into his calls, Trump refused to give up the phone, and kept using it as usual. The president likes to keep his personal iPhone around reportedly because “he can store his contacts in it.”
From the Times report, written by Matthew Rosenberg and Maggie Haberman:
“American spy agencies, the officials said, had 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.”
“If true, this may be the largest, most significant breach of White House communications in history,” says Payton, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is now CEO of security firm Fortalice Solutions. “America’s most sophisticated peer competitor now has a direct line into the president’s confidential thinking and conversations.”
Armed with intel gathered from Trump’s many calls, foreign adversaries might learn to exploit weaknesses in the American leader to the detriment of U.S. interests.
Amid ongoing trade tensions, China has learned from the calls “how Mr. Trump thinks, what arguments tend to sway him and to whom he is inclined to listen,” the Times reports. The list of Trump contacts that Beijing has assembled is said to include Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group CEO, and retired Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn.
“The Chinese have identified friends of both men and others among the president’s regulars, and are now relying on Chinese businessmen and others with ties to Beijing to feed arguments to the friends of the Trump friends. The strategy is that those people will pass on what they are hearing, and that Beijing’s views will eventually be delivered to the president by trusted voices, the officials said. They added that the Trump friends were most likely unaware of any Chinese effort.”
Schwarzman, who recently endowed a new school at MIT dedicated to artificial intelligence, has also endowed a master’s program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. A spokeswoman for Blackstone declined to speak to the Times about Chinese efforts to influence Schwarzman, but said that he “has been happy to serve as an intermediary on certain critical matters between the two countries at the request of both heads of state.”
A “direct line” into the president’s thinking
Reports last summer said high-tech cell-phone spying devices–sometimes called Stingrays and used to intercept cell-phone signals–were being used near the White House and operated by foreign governments.
According to the Times, the Secret Service has also requested that Trump swap out his phones every 30 days, with brand-new software, but he has bristled at that precaution.
On the campaign trail, Trump regularly criticized Hillary Clinton for her use of an unsecured email server while she was secretary of state, a violation that inspired chants of “lock her up” at his rallies. His administration also ordered a ban across the government on all technologies made by Chinese manufacturers ZTE and Huawei over concerns about surveillance.
Past U.S. presidents, like Barack Obama, submitted to using less-cool-looking-but-more-secure Blackberry devices while in office, though he occasionally used aides’ phones to make personal calls. In his second term, Obama switched to an iPhone, albeit with a number of features removed, including the camera and microphone.