In the wake of the 2013 revelations of the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program, and amid increasing worries that private firms are using our phones to eavesdrop on us, it’s understandable that many people are now paranoid that their private communications can be intercepted. The president of the United States, however, is apparently not among them.
The New York Times (paywall) reported yesterday (Oct. 24) that Donald Trump wouldn’t restrict his phone calls to more secure lines available to him, such as White House landlines, preferring to conduct many communications—including calls to Fox News—over one of three iPhones. None of the three cellphones are completely secure, though two of them have been altered by the NSA to limit vulnerabilities, while the third, personal phone is the most insecure. As a result, Chinese and Russian intelligence have allegedly been able to listen in, the paper reported, citing unnamed current and former officials. The paper said the officials came by the information via informants in other governments and their own eavesdropping on other governments.
The report said China has been using the information gleaned in this way to form a list of personal friends Trump speaks with frequently, as well as “what arguments work,” hoping to lobby these networks over the two countries’ trade war. That suggests that outsiders are able to access not only the phone numbers the president calls, but also the content of the calls themselves. Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of private-equity giant Blackstone Group, and casino magnate Steve Wynn are on the list put together by China, the Times said.
It’s unclear how access to such communications might change China’s lobbying efforts—someone like Schwarzman, who has invested in China and sponsors a scholarship program in Beijing, is already known to advise the president (paywall) on US-China ties. While representatives for both men declined to comment on the Times report, a spokeswoman for Schwarzman said the billionaire has served as an intermediary between the US and China at the request of leaders on both sides.
The report, however, points to Trump’s disinterest in classified briefings as a silver lining that could allay concerns over what foreign governments may be overhearing. “[Officials] said they had further confidence he was not spilling secrets [on the phone] because he rarely digs into the details of the intelligence he is shown and is not well versed in the operational specifics of military or covert activities,” the Times said.
In a Thursday tweet, Trump called the article long, boring, and wrong:
The so-called experts on Trump over at the New York Times wrote a long and boring article on my cellphone usage that is so incorrect I do not have time here to correct it. I only use Government Phones, and have only one seldom used government cell phone. Story is soooo wrong!
Asked about the report, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday first accused the New York Times of “fake news.” Then she name-dropped the name of the Chinese telecom firm, and Apple rival, that’s been pretty much shut out of the US on national security grounds.
“If you are worried about eavesdropping on the Apple’s iPhone, you can use Huawei,” she told reporters (link in Chinese).
Update: The story was updated on Oct. 25 with comment from Trump and China’s foreign ministry.