And I’m not the only one who’s made this observation. One of the members of the hacking group, Anonymous, made the following comment on Trump’s smartphone of choice, the Samsung Galaxy S3.
Whatever you may think about members of Anonymous, the statement is fundamentally correct. However, if you don’t trust anything coming from a member of Anonymous, cybersecurity expert, Bruce Schneier, remarked that, “His (Trump’s) off-the-shelf Android could potentially become a room bug without his knowledge and an attacker could certainly hijack his apps.”
The Samsung Galaxy 3
Trump’s smartphone could easily be infected by a RAT; a Remote Access Trojan. This type of malware allows an attacker to take complete control of a device from a remote location using internet connectivity. The attacker can turn on the microphone, the camera, and the GPS. With the built in keylogger, they can gather all of the victim’s usernames and passwords. They can, then, take over the victim’s email accounts and send any message they wish to any contacts. In short, they can pretend to be the user. How hard is it to get one of these programs? Not hard at all. Some are offered for free and come with complete instructions. In fact, you can watch Youtube videos on how to install and use them.
The problem is getting the victim to install the malware on their device. If I were going to attack Trump’s smartphone, I would not do so directly. I would try to compromise one of his family members or a trusted friend. Then, I could send a message from their compromised email or some app with an attachment for him to open. It could even be a valid attachment like a picture from some event that both of them had attended. Clicking on the attachment would install the malware. If it was good malware, especially a zero-day exploit, it would not be easily detectable. Trump would assume all was well because the phone would continue to operate as usual. However, he would continually be giving information to those controlling his device. Cybersecurity experts know that he continued to use the Samsung phone to send tweets until early this month. What we don’t know is if the phone had been upgraded to make it more secure. In late January, President Trump gave Fox’s Sean Hannity a tour of the Oval Office and showed him his desk which seemed to have a smartphone on it.
If we assume that Trump’s Samsung phone was hacked, the next question should be, who would hack it? Here, we are not short of suspects. Almost any nation-state would be interested in learning what the President of the United States was up to. If a nation-state hacked Trump’s phone, it wouldn’t be with off-the-shelf malware. It would probably be with a zero-day exploit that would remain well hidden. Although Russia is the cyber-attack darling of the moment, it is highly unlikely that they would gather and then leak any sensitive information. And it’s the leaking that’s important here. Someone or some entity was hacking and then leaking the information to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press.
If we eliminate nation-states as the source of the leaks, we are left with those actors who would benefit from shining a negative light on the executive branch. The fact that the leaks were given to members of the media associated with anti-Trump leanings points towards those who share these leanings. As Louis Clark, executive director of the Government Accountability Project, pointed out, these leaks seem to be made with the sole purpose of harming the president and his reputation. “There has been an extraordinary amount of leaking from this administration in just the first month.”
Trump initially blamed the intelligence community for some of the leaks. “It was disgraceful, disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed [out] any information that turned out to be so false and fake.” It is no secret that a hostile environment existed between the Trump administration and the intelligence community, but would they, or someone within it leak information? If this was the case, or if Trump was under investigation by some branch of the intelligence community, those responsible for securing Trump’s smartphone may not have pushed to have him stop using it. After all, it would be giving away one of the best sources for information. If Trump or his administration was being investigated for ties with Russia, for example, it is unlikely that the intelligence community would impede such an investigation by removing Trump’s smartphone from the loop. However, leaking information to the press would be counterproductive and would undermine their secrecy. Such leaks could only come from a rogue employee who had some political axe to grind.
The recent announcement from House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes disclosed that the intelligence community had incidentally collected information on Trump and the Trump administration while pursuing other investigations. Nunes was particularly upset in finding that members of the Trump administration and possibly Trump himself had been ‘unmasked’. Their identity was not protected even though the information was gathered incidentally. But it is no longer true that this need be the case if one of 16 government intelligence agencies is investigating someone within the administration. New legislation was quietly signed off on by then Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, just before leaving office that allows such unmasking to occur. According to the New York Times, agencies can now “ask the N.S.A. for access to specific surveillance feeds, making the case that they contain information relevant and useful to their missions.” In other words, if Trump, or members of his administration, are being investigated by the FBI, that agency can request any intelligence gathered on them by the NSA, even if it has been incidentally gathered. The original document (PROCEDURES FOR THE AVAILABILTY OR DISSEMINATION OF RAW SIGNALS INTELLIGENCE INFORMATION BY THE NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY UNDER SECTION 2.3 OF EXECUTIVE ORDER 12333) can be viewed here.
So was Trump’s Samsung smartphone hacked and, if so, was it the source for many of the leaks? I think the real revelation would be if his smartphone was not hacked. As for the leaks, the ability of 16 intelligence agencies to share data would expose that data to more individuals, some of whom may want to discredit the Trump administration and who are willing to risk leaking this information to do so. In fact, the new legislation makes it easier to leak documents because, with so many people having access to the classified information, the risk of being caught is reduced. In short, we can not only expect such leaks to continue, we should expect the number of leaks to increase.