Over the weekend, North Korea launched a midrange ballistic missile in an unannounced test, an implicit threat to much of East Asia. It’s the kind of unplanned crisis that puts the national security sector on high alert, prompting an emergency for the president and top staff.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump was at Mar-a-Lago, having dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Abe. CNN reports that, instead of retiring to a secure room, Trump took the briefing in the middle of the resort’s public terrace. Even worse, his aides lit the documents with their cell phones, since apparently no one had a lamp handy.
That is a really bad idea.
We’ve written before about how Trump’s lingering Android habit makes him vulnerable to hacking, and this is the perfect example. The concern is a hot mic attack, in which a hacker uses the compromised phone to record private conversations. But as our demo showed, it’s just as easy to compromise the camera, allowing the attacker to see whatever is in front of the phone. That’s usually not as useful, provided the target doesn’t physically hold up the phone and point it at sensitive intelligence documents, but here we are.
We don’t know exactly what was in the documents Trump was looking at, but it’s reasonable to assume it summarized everything we currently know about North Korea’s nuclear program, likely drawing on any number of sensitive sources.
And while the country is struggling in many ways, North Korea is pretty good at cyberattacks. Just this week, a North Korean group was linked to a string of recent attacks against Western banks, all of which present far stronger defenses than a commercial Android phone. The information would be equally interesting to China, which has long supported the North Korean regime and would be closely tied to any conflict in the region.
The security of presidential intelligence briefings should not be a partisan issue. Intelligence agencies have been securing these briefings for a long time, and it’s not a particularly hard problem to solve as long as the president understands what’s at stake. This weekend’s briefing is the most egregious example, but there have been plenty of other unforced security breaches in the first three weeks of the President’s term, including leaving keys in classified lockbags. We can only hope someone talks some sense into President Trump before something genuinely damaging happens.