Cybersecurity experts cringe as Trump hands out his cell phone number

President overshares personal information with world leaders, creates real risks

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The inter­net stirred ear­li­er this week about the mean­ing of the word “Covfefe”—generated, one could guess, when the pres­i­dent fell asleep mid-tweet, phone in hand. But a more impor­tant Trump cell phone issue got far less attention.

Bob Sul­li­van, jour­nal­ist and one of the found­ing mem­bers of msnbc.com

The Asso­ci­at­ed Press report­ed that Trump is giv­ing out his cell phone num­ber to world lead­ers so they can call him direct­ly. Not only is this high­ly unusu­al, it cre­ates plen­ty of secu­ri­ty risks—not to men­tion pub­lic records issues.

Ear­li­er, mar­ket­ing expert Pesach “Pace” Lat­tin had not­ed that Trump—at least sometimes—appears to leave loca­tion tag­ging on, point­ing as evi­dence to a tweet, sent dur­ing the president’s recent inter­na­tion­al trip, which was tagged with the loca­tion “from Taormi­na, Italy.”

Trump has loca­tion tag­ging on. That is a huge secu­ri­ty risk. Means his phone’s GPS is on,” Lat­tin tweeted.

(Oth­er tweets don’t seem to share loca­tion, so per­haps the pres­i­dent turns loca­tion on and off for effect; still, who among us hasn’t screwed up such pri­va­cy settings?)

The loca­tion infor­ma­tion, com­bined with the wide shar­ing of the device’s phone num­ber, cre­ates seri­ous risks, says Jeff Bardin, chief intel­li­gence offi­cer for secu­ri­ty firm Treadstone71.

(The phone) will be direct­ly mon­i­tored for all calls, texts, URLs vis­it­ed, apps used, and ful­ly exposed to for­eign intel­li­gence agen­cies for track­ing,” Bardin said. One can assume the num­ber has been wide­ly shared through intel­li­gence agen­cies. For­eign gov­ern­ments could deter­mine the phone’s loca­tion and prob­a­bly access data and mes­sages on the device.

It’s pos­si­ble the phone could be “imper­son­at­ed,” or cloned, so every mes­sage or call direct­ed at Trump’s phone also would be sent to the clone.

Eaves­drop­ping possible

It also could be used to lis­ten in on Trump’s con­ver­sa­tions. There have been numer­ous sto­ries chron­i­cling mali­cious soft­ware that turns on the micro­phone of a smart­phone, even if the gad­get is off, turn­ing the gad­get into a per­fect bug­ging device. CNN has report­ed that the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency, indeed, can do this.

The loca­tion issue is even more sen­si­tive, Bardin said. An ene­my who could pin­point the president’s pre­cise coor­di­nates would have cru­cial infor­ma­tion for doing him harm.

Lat­tin, also a secu­ri­ty expert who once helped set up a Secret Ser­vice secu­ri­ty task force, says Trump’s insis­tence on tweet­ing cre­ates a wide field of concerns.

Trump’s obses­sive use of Twit­ter is not only a dan­ger to him­self, but to oth­ers,” he said. “Twit­ter is a noto­ri­ous­ly poor­ly writ­ten pro­gram, first of all, and add to it that he is obvi­ous­ly using his phone with GPS on, there is a pletho­ra of issues. I can’t imag­ine the U.S. Secret Ser­vice is hap­py with him insist­ing on car­ry­ing this with him at all times.”

 Not stan­dard protocol

Of course, it’s rea­son­able to think that for­eign intel­li­gence agen­cies already had Trump’s num­ber and oth­er device-iden­ti­fy­ing details, and could com­mit this kind of espi­onage with Trump’s alleged over­shar­ing. It seems impru­dent to make their job any eas­i­er, however.

There also are polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. Trump using his own phone—as opposed to offi­cial channels—to com­mu­ni­cate with world lead­ers cuts out all stan­dard pro­to­cols. It’s unclear how such con­ver­sa­tions would be stored for pos­ter­i­ty or made sub­ject to pub­lic records requests.

It is under­stand­able that a pres­i­dent look­ing to main­tain tried-and-true com­mu­ni­ca­tion meth­ods would be reluc­tant to change styles after elec­tion, how­ev­er. For an exam­ple, one needs only to look back one president.

Eight years ago, then Pres­i­dent-elect Barack Oba­ma went through a high­ly pub­lic squab­ble with U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies to keep access to his trusty Black­ber­ry gad­get. At one point, he said of his secu­ri­ty team, “They’re going to pry it out of my hands.”

Ulti­mate­ly, the two sides com­pro­mised, and Oba­ma received a mod­i­fied, lim­it­ed-used Black­ber­ry that report­ed­ly had tight con­trols on mes­sages going in and out. But as late as 2015, Oba­ma said he wasn’t allowed to have a smart­phone that could pick up audio (He final­ly got one dur­ing his final year in office.)

I can’t use phones with recorders in them. So a lot of the new fan­gled stuff, for secu­ri­ty rea­sons, I don’t get,” he said on the Jim­my Kim­mel TV show then.

More sto­ries relat­ed to phone privacy:
Think twice before allow­ing apps to access infor­ma­tion on your phone
Donat­ing cell phone could put you at risk
Think your device is safe from scruti­ny? Ask Tom Brady