The casual Don: Is Trump any different from most Americans?
Donald Trump has not demonstrated a strong desire to create a more cyber secure nation. Whether we look at his stance vis-à-vis Russian influence in the 2016 election, or the latest news regarding the president’s use of personal iPhones, it’s impossible not to wonder what’s up with 45?
First the news. According to President Trump (via Twitter), “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!”
This latest news regarding the president’s smartphone use suggests Mr. Trump does not fully (or perhaps even partially) understand the perils of lax cyber security protocols, and that’s a serious problem given his propensity for disputes and power struggles at home and abroad.
The New York Times spoke to White House staffers on condition of anonymity and learned that President Trump often uses his personal iPhones to speak to friends and colleagues. The report states that the president has been told that the Chinese and Russian governments routinely listen to his calls. With regard to the Chinese, the Times referred to an unnamed official who said they, “are often listening — and putting to use invaluable insights into how to best work the president and affect administration policy.” One can only imagine the Russians are using what they glean from these calls in a similar way.
The problem here is complex. Knowing who Trump talks to, and what sort of approaches work with him gives the Chinese (and presumably the Russians) the ability to lobby not the president, but perhaps more importantly the people he listens to. This creates an incredibly insecure decision-making process — in essence, an unknowable cabinet that may or may not have the right stuff.
There are secure landlines that the president can use, and he claims this is the way he communicates by and large, but the extant photos coupled with stories from staffers are probably a better reflection of reality here. And the reality is stark.
“If true,” said Theresa Payton, former Bush 43 White House chief information officer in an email statement to Fast Company, “this may be the largest, most significant breach of White House communications in history… America’s most sophisticated peer competitor now has a direct line into the president’s confidential thinking and conversations.”
It seems reasonable to hope that the Chinese would have to work a little harder to get what they want out of the president in the current trade war. Or at the very least, that the president should not be helping them by dint of poor cyberhygiene.
There is no easy answer as to why the President Trump would be so cavalier about his communications.
We’ve got to assume — or at least hope — that his security code is better than Kanye West’s, who showed the world it was “000000” on live television, but regardless, the news should be met with public outrage. The president of the United States shouldn’t be using off-the-shelf technology to communicate with anyone. It’s simply too easy to hack.
So, is President Trump any different from most Americans? Probably not.
Whether we look at the most popular passwords used by consumers year after year (hint: QWERTY, 123456, password, and close relatives with added numbers and symbols) or the ever increasing ways hackers target people with phishing attacks, smishing (text-based phishing) and other forms of social engineering, one thing is clear: Most Americans are not well educated about the perils “out there.”
In cybersecurity, the goal is to reduce your attackable surface. We are constantly faced with conveniences that expand that surface. Social media (which the president famously uses), the burgeoning eco-system of connected devices (smartphones to computers to Internet of Things devices) and increasing reliance on digital everything serves to increase the ways in which we can “get got.”
And with that, the obvious follow-up question: Never mind.
The president is by definition supposed to be an exceptional human being, not an exception to the rules. The rules here are clear: The threats are pervasive, and it is not asking too much that the president immediately and permanently reduce our nation’s attackable surface by putting down his damn phone.
Adam K. Levin is a consumer advocate with more than 30 years of experience and is an expert on cybersecurity, privacy, identity theft, fraud, and personal finance. A former Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, Mr. Levin is Chairman and founder of CyberScout and co-founder of Credit.com. He is also author of Amazon best-selling book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves.