Donald Trump embarks on a nine-day trip to Asia this weekend. It is his longest foreign trip so far as US president, and will include two days in China—behind the country’s Great Firewall. Does that mean the world is in for an extended version of his recent 11-minute Twitter time out?
While China’s massive censorship machine technically blocks Chinese citizens from using Twitter, there are ways around it—especially for foreigners. First of all, foreigners can sometimes access Twitter and other blocked social networks within China, just by using international hotel chains’ Wifi or because they’re roaming on a Chinese telecom network, rather than permanently registered on it.
They don’t even need to be top government officials. Here’s Paris Hilton on Twitter and Instagram in Shanghai.
Secondly, there’s a bit of a precedent set for foreign officials tweeting from China.
Barack Obama didn’t tweet from China during his September 2016 trip, although he did from Laos the day after he left. But India’s prime minister Narendra Modi not only tweeted from China, he astoundingly tweeted a selfie with premier Li Keqiang (China’s top party politicians aren’t huge on selfies.)
Trump has already expressed a fondness for Modi’s style.
And, of course, as the US president, Trump is likely to have his own channel to access Twitter. Top US government officials traveling in China rely on satellite links and secure government-issued phones, set up by the White House Communications Agency (WHCA). Air Force One, the presidential plane Trump will travel on, has satellite hookups, secure internet connections, and 85 phone lines.
“We can all agree that if some feather-ruffling domestic issue arises while Trump is in China, he’d likely be on Twitter in the time that it takes to drink a cup of tea,” Charlie Smith, a co-founder of Greatfire, which fights against Chinese censorship.
What’s more important than whether the president tweets, cyber-security experts say, is how well he and his team follow the recommendations of the WHCA and the Secret Service, which are both tasked with protecting the president and his team from cyber-attacks. Beijing has a fearsome reputation for hacking into the private communications of any foreigners traveling in China, from bankers to politicians to company heads to journalists.
If the White House delegation relies on their personal phones while they are in China, they “will definitely be compromised” predicts James Norton, a former cyber-security official in the George W. Bush administration, who now heads consulting firm Play-Action Strategies.
Most White House employees have at least two phones, and some three, that they use for varying degrees of personal and business calls. Trump generally tweets from two phones, an Android and an iPhone, with his less polished tweets coming from the first.
If the officials in charge of cyber-security are “doing it right, they’ll give everyone a phone just for this trip, and then take it back when it is over,” said Smith.
However, Trump’s been known to break security protocol before. “You may have the correct cyber training, but do you actually put it into practice?” asked Smith. “Some people get sloppy, some people forget, some people have no choice but to expose themselves to a potential attack.”
No matter how secure any plan is that the Secret Service and the White House communications specialists come up with, “they only have so much authority,” Norton said. “They can only advise, they can’t enforce.”