Cell Phone Security and Heads of State
Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on President Donald Trump’s personal cell phone and using the information gleaned to better influence his behavior. This should surprise no one. Security experts have been talking about the potential security vulnerabilities in Trump’s cell phone use since he became president. And President Barack Obama bristled at—but acquiesced to—the security rules prohibiting him from using a “regular” cell phone throughout his presidency.
Three broader questions obviously emerge from the story. Who else is listening in on Trump’s cell phone calls? What about the cell phones of other world leaders and senior government officials? And—most personal of all—what about my cell phone calls?
There are two basic places to eavesdrop on pretty much any communications system: at the end points and during transmission. This means that a cell phone attacker can either compromise one of the two phones or eavesdrop on the cellular network. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks. The NSA seems to prefer bulk eavesdropping on the planet’s major communications links and then picking out individuals of interest. In 2016, WikiLeaks published a series of classified documents listing “target selectors”: phone numbers the NSA searches for and records. These included senior government officials of Germany—among them Chancellor Angela Merkel—France, Japan, and other countries.
Other countries don’t have the same worldwide reach that the NSA has, and must use other methods to intercept cell phone calls. We don’t know details of which countries do what, but we know a lot about the vulnerabilities. Insecurities in the phone network itself are so easily exploited that 60 Minutes eavesdropped on a US congressman’s phone live on camera in 2016. Back in 2005, unknown attackers targeted the cell phones of many Greek politicians by hacking the country’s phone network and turning on an already-installed eavesdropping capability. The NSA even implanted eavesdropping capabilities in networking equipment destined for the Syrian Telephone Company.
Alternatively, an attacker could intercept the radio signals between a cell phone and a tower. Encryption ranges from very weak to possibly strong, depending on which flavor the system uses. Don’t think the attacker has to put his eavesdropping antenna on the White House lawn; the Russian Embassy is close enough.
The other way to eavesdrop on a cell phone is by hacking the phone itself. This is the technique favored by countries with less sophisticated intelligence capabilities. In 2017, the public-interest forensics group Citizen Lab uncovered an extensive eavesdropping campaign against Mexican lawyers, journalists, and opposition politicians—presumably run by the government. Just last month, the same group found eavesdropping capabilities in products from the Israeli cyberweapons manufacturer NSO Group operating in Algeria, Bangladesh, Greece, India, Kazakhstan, Latvia, South Africa—45 countries in all.
These attacks generally involve downloading malware onto a smartphone that then records calls, text messages, and other user activities, and forwards them to some central controller. Here, it matters which phone is being targeted. iPhones are harder to hack, which is reflected in the prices companies pay for new exploit capabilities. In 2016, the vulnerability broker Zerodium offered $1.5 million for an unknown iOS exploit and only $200K for a similar Android exploit. Earlier this year, a new Dubai start-up announced even higher prices. These vulnerabilities are resold to governments and cyberweapons manufacturers.
Some of the price difference is due to the ways the two operating systems are designed and used. Apple has much more control over the software on an iPhone than Google does on an Android phone. Also, Android phones are generally designed, built, and sold by third parties, which means they are much less likely to get timely security updates. This is changing. Google now has its own phone—Pixel—that gets security updates quickly and regularly, and Google is now trying to pressure Android-phone manufacturers to update their phones more regularly. (President Trump reportedly uses an iPhone.)
Another way to hack a cell phone is to install a backdoor during the design process. This is a real fear; earlier this year, US intelligence officials warned that phones made by the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei might be compromised by that government, and the Pentagon ordered stores on military bases to stop selling them. This is why China’s recommendation that if Trump wanted security, he should use a Huawei phone, was an amusing bit of trolling.
Given the wealth of insecurities and the array of eavesdropping techniques, it’s safe to say that lots of countries are spying on the phones of both foreign officials and their own citizens. Many of these techniques are within the capabilities of criminal groups, terrorist organizations, and hackers. If I were guessing, I’d say that the major international powers like China and Russia are using the more passive interception techniques to spy on Trump, and that the smaller countries are too scared of getting caught to try to plant malware on his phone.
It’s safe to say that President Trump is not the only one being targeted; so are members of Congress, judges, and other senior officials—especially because no one is trying to tell any of them to stop using their cell phones (although cell phones still are not allowed on either the House or the Senate floor).
As for the rest of us, it depends on how interesting we are. It’s easy to imagine a criminal group eavesdropping on a CEO’s phone to gain an advantage in the stock market, or a country doing the same thing for an advantage in a trade negotiation. We’ve seen governments use these tools against dissidents, reporters, and other political enemies. The Chinese and Russian governments are already targeting the US power grid; it makes sense for them to target the phones of those in charge of that grid.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to improve the security of your cell phone. Unlike computer networks, for which you can buy antivirus software, network firewalls, and the like, your phone is largely controlled by others. You’re at the mercy of the company that makes your phone, the company that provides your cellular service, and the communications protocols developed when none of this was a problem. If one of those companies doesn’t want to bother with security, you’re vulnerable.
This is why the current debate about phone privacy, with the FBI on one side wanting the ability to eavesdrop on communications and unlock devices, and users on the other side wanting secure devices, is so important. Yes, there are security benefits to the FBI being able to use this information to help solve crimes, but there are far greater benefits to the phones and networks being so secure that all the potential eavesdroppers—including the FBI—can’t access them. We can give law enforcement other forensics tools, but we must keep foreign governments, criminal groups, terrorists, and everyone else out of everyone’s phones. The president may be taking heat for his love of his insecure phone, but each of us is using just as insecure a phone. And for a surprising number of us, making those phones more private is a matter of national security.
This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic.