Are Security Concerns Over Trump’s Android, Twitter Use Overblown?

Security experts say it’s hard to know for sure without further details.

4 Min Read

Some concerns aired lately about potential security implications of President Trump’s use of his Twitter account and apparently an old personal Android smartphone could be based on incomplete information security experts said this week.

Several media reports in recent days have noted Trump’s apparent use of an old and unsecured Android device to post his tweets. Android Central analyzed a couple of photos of Trump using the phone and surmised that it most likely was a Samsung Galaxy S3 released back in 2012, and which hasn’t received any software updates since at least 2012.

Trump was rumored to have turned in the phone for an encrypted US Secret Service-approved device soon after being sworn in as President. But in an interview with The New York Times earlier this week, he seemed to indicate that he still had the old Android and was apparently using it to post on Twitter.

In a separate story, The New York Times described Trump’s alleged use of the old Android as a practice that could expose him and the nation to multiple security threats. The Times cited experts as worrying over whether the device and its contents were properly encrypted, whether it was open to hacking on cellular and Wi-Fi networks, and its susceptibility to location tracking.

Famed cryptographer Bruce Schneier expressed concern about the potential for the phone to be used for eavesdropping, if indeed Trump was using the phone as reported. Meanwhile, there were reports this week that Trump’s official @POTUS Twitter account was possibly connected to a personal Gmail account belonging to White House social media director Dan Scavino - claims that stirred additional security concerns.

A Twitter user with the handle WauchulaGhost noted the problem in how Trump’s Twitter account was secured and that of multiple other Twitter accounts belonging to people close to the President. On Thursday, Trump’s @POTUS account was linked to a White House email account after several media reports had raised the issue.

While such issues are important, the real question is to what extent they are being allowed to become a security problem, several experts said.

"The White House has a solid security team," says Eddie Schwartz, president and COO of White Ops Inc. "It's unlikely they and more senior officials would not have briefed the President or his aides on the risks of their personal devices."

At a minimum, they would have taken steps to lock down personal devices or keep them out of controlled access areas where classified material is discussed, Schwartz says.

Multiple measures are also available to shore up security on off-the-shelf devices like the aging Android that the President is reported to be using, he says. This can include measures like implementing data encryption at rest and in transmission, the use of a secure OS like Knox, and device configuration management.

"Certain hardware and software platforms have more problems than others," he says. "But I’m confident that the White House has access to all the vulnerabilities that are known by the government."

Morey Haber, vice president of technology at BeyondTrust, said it's hard to believe that the Secret Service and the NSA would allow the President direct access to an unsecure device with an unsecure set of credentials based on a commercial Gmail account. It is also very likely that someone other that Trump is tweeting the messages on his behalf, Haber says. The President himself will likely only be allowed to use an authorized Blackberry or STIG-hardened Android device, he noted.

"I have no insight or inside information into what device President Trump really is using," notes John Pescatore, director of emerging security threat at SANS Institute. But it isn’t unusual at all for a C-level executive or a Command-in-Chief to refuse to be dictated a security function.

If that is the case, "I hope that President Trump is at least using a single-purpose device only for Tweeting and using the strongest authentication possible," he says, noting Twitter’s available two-factor verification process. Ideally, the President would be using an authorized device that is locked down and monitored and kept secure.

"That said, he has been a prolific Tweeter for many years and doesn’t seemed to have fallen to attacks before," Pescatore says. "He may be unusually security-aware or just unusually lucky."

Either way, it is up to the President to set the standard in secure communications from the top-down, according to Pescatore.

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About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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