On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Chinese and Russian spies have been routinely eavesdropping on President Trump’s calls to advisors and friends that he makes on an unprotected iPhone. By listening to the calls, China has reportedly been able to pinpoint which people have influence over Trump and attempted to have them deliver messages that will benefit the country. The president has two iPhones that have been modified by the National Security Agency to limit the potential for tampering, which necessarily requires the disabling of functions like contact lists. However, according to the report, Trump prefers to use his personal iPhone, which lacks these protections.
Trump disputed the Times’s report on Twitter by claiming that he rarely uses cellphones. It appears that he sent the tweet on an iPhone.
It’s unclear exactly what tricks and ruses foreign spies could be using to tap into the president’s calls. “There are at a lot of approaches that are used to subverting systems, and that applies to whether you’re dealing with the phone system, whether you’re dealing with critical infrastructure,” says Clifford Neuman, the Director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Computer Systems Security. “All these critical techniques … they all come into play in this question of: If someone were to target a particular cellphone, how would they accomplish it?”
The two most obvious ways to eavesdrop on Trump’s phone conversations would be to tamper with the switches, which are essentially computers that route calls, or with the device itself. Tampering with the switches would require a deep understanding of Washington, D.C.’s phone systems in order to identify which computers are handling the traffic for a particular set of calls. This sort of probing can be done remotely. “Intelligence agencies are constantly probing networks to find vulnerable routers, servers, switches. … If you can get a piece of spyware onto that machine, then you can see all the things that are happening,” says Andrew McLaughlin, who served as the deputy chief technology officer in the Obama administration. “You absolutely don’t have to be walking around in a trench coat and sunglasses in D.C. This would be people sitting in a dark basement in Moscow.”
Once spies have identified the switch they want to target, they could compromise the developers of the equipment and sneak spyware in through a software update or other means. If they have access to the supply chain for the hardware, they could also insert a malicious device. There is also a way to direct cell traffic through a fake switch under a nefarious actor’s control. Cell-site simulators, also known as Stingrays, are a technology that send broadcast signals that appear to be stronger than those from actual switches in the area. Phones in that area will connect to that stronger signal, allowing the people who control the stingray to pinpoint GPS locations and eavesdrop on calls.
Breaching the president’s actual phone would give foreign governments an even more potent espionage tool. “The holy grail is to get spyware onto the device,” McLaughlin notes. “If you can get spyware onto the president’s iPhone, turn on the microphone, turn on the camera, grab screenshots.” Targeting the device, though, is more difficult. Spies would most likely need to know the model of the phone, the number, and other details. From there, they could deliver malware through operating system updates or app downloads. Foreign actors may also be able to launch a zero-day attack, which essentially takes advantage of a security flaw of which the phone’s developer is unaware. “If we are looking at the things a nation state might have in terms of being able to try to target a phone that is being used by the president, zero-days would be things that are in their arsenal,” says Neuman. Such attacks can go undetected, which is why there is a policy that the president must switch out his phone every 30 days. According to the Times, however, Trump rarely does.
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