A new New York Times report revealed another phone security lapse from the Trump administration.
On Thursday, the Times reported on some disturbing findings from a dataset of tens of billions of location pings from more than 12 million phones. And on Friday, the Times said it managed to track the movements of Trump using that data.
According to the report, the phone in question likely belonged to a U.S. Secret Service agent in Trump’s entourage. The Times tracked Trump’s movements in southern Florida during one of his trips to his Mar-A-Lago estate, this one with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
From there, the reporters were able to identify the phone owner’s home address on a map and search publicly available information on the agent, including name and family details. This is terrifying, not just in relation to the president, but to everyone who uses a phone.
But it also underscores how this White House has continually failed to get its act together when it comes to securely using technology. And this incident is tied to one of the Trump administration’s other major security lapses.
The data obtained by the Times is from periods throughout 2016 and 2017. Abe visited Mar-A-Lago with Trump in February 2017. During that visit, North Korea launched a ballistic missile. The incident interrupted a dinner Trump and Abe were having, surrounded by other Mar-A-Lago members in the club’s private dining room.
Trump not only took calls about the incident in that dining room instead of a more secure location, but members of Trump’s team used their phone flashlights to cast light on secure documents so they could be read. Given that smart phones, like laptops, are vulnerable to having their cameras hacked and used for spying, this was, to say the least, not a great idea.
It’s not known if the agent the Times tracked was at the dinner when the North Korea launch occurred, but the Times notes that Trump and Abe had a “working dinner” on the night they tracked the phone. Even if these two dinners were on different nights of Abe’s visit, they occurred during the same visit.
The alarming tracking data revealed by the Times is of a different nature than Trump’s brazen flaunting of other basic phone security precautions. But they both reflect a lackadaisical attitude taken by the administration toward security that puts the president and the country at risk. And while they may not be able to completely fix these issues, they could at least take some steps to protect themselves.
As the Times points out about the tracking data, “Agencies can limit how their employees use location-sharing apps and services, but that doesn’t mean those guidelines will be strictly enforced — or extended to personal devices.” The Times doesn’t say what phone the agent was using, or if any efforts were made to prevent tracking it, but it’s clear that if they tried, they didn’t try hard enough.
You’d think that the Secret Service, mere feet away from the president at all times, would do their best not to expose their location. Just as you’d expect the president and his administration to use secure phones and not expose sensitive data to bad actors, even if he finds some security measures, like swapping in new phones, “inconvenient.”
And the president continues to flaunt these security issues, as the New York Times reported last year. Trump refuses to use a more secure White House landline, the report says, opting instead for less secure cell phone lines that intelligence officials believes are being spied on by Chinese and Russian agents.
Additionally, call records used as part of the recent impeachment investigation show that Trump still uses unsecured lines to call to close contacts, like Rudy Giuliani, raising the possibility he discusses sensitive information in these calls.
Even if Trump continues to find the protocols to protect his phone calls inconvenient, maybe the revelation that poor security practice reveals his location in real time will light a fire under officials to finally do something about it.