How to Make Donald Trump’s Phone Safe

Matt Rourke/AP File Photo

The man who led the effort to let President Obama keep his BlackBerry says the best solution for Trump might be multiple devices.

Eight years after he was the man try­ing to grant Barack Obama’s plea to keep his Black­Berry, Richard “Dick­ie” George is watch­ing with more than cas­u­al in­terest while an­oth­er pres­id­ent-elect fights to keep his smart­phone as a life­line out of the bubble that is the mod­ern pres­id­ency.

Obama won that battle—sort of—thanks to the work of a team at the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency headed by George, and thanks to the pres­id­ent’s will­ing­ness to ac­cept severe re­stric­tions.

Today, the chal­lenges presen­ted by Pres­id­ent-elect Don­ald Trump’s heavy use of so­cial me­dia on an un­se­cured An­droid phone are con­sid­er­ably more daunt­ing. And the out­come is less than clear only five weeks be­fore the In­aug­ur­a­tion.

Trump trans­ition of­fi­cials will not talk about the is­sue, not even re­spond­ing to ques­tions on wheth­er they have had any dis­cus­sions with NSA. The pres­id­ent-elect, in an in­ter­view with CBS’s 60 Minutes shortly after the elec­tion, prom­ised to be “very re­strained” with Twit­ter “if I use it at all.” With 17.3 mil­lion fol­low­ers, he sees Twit­ter as “a meth­od of fight­ing back” against cri­ti­cism.

In­deed, in his postelec­tion tweets, he has at­tacked The New York TimesVan­ity Fair, CNN, NBC News and Sat­urday Night Live. On Dec. 5, he seemed to an­swer the ques­tion about his fu­ture tweets when he tweeted: “If the press would cov­er me ac­cur­ately & hon­or­ably, I would have far less reas­on to ‘tweet.’ Sadly, I don’t know if that will ever hap­pen!”

That means NSA, which is in charge of pro­tect­ing U.S. gov­ern­ment com­mu­nic­a­tions and in­form­a­tion sys­tems, will have to deal with a tweet-happy pres­id­ent, one who has told his aides he does not want to sur­render his Sam­sung Galaxy S4. It’s ex­actly the type of chal­lenge George thrived on dur­ing his 41 years with NSA. Be­fore he re­tired in 2011 and be­came seni­or ad­viser for cy­ber­se­cur­ity at the Johns Hop­kins Ap­plied Phys­ics Lab, George had spent the pre­vi­ous eight years at NSA as tech­nic­al dir­ect­or for the In­form­a­tion As­sur­ance Dir­ect­or­ate.

He was in that job on Elec­tion Day in 2008 when he was told to find a way to let Obama keep his Black­Berry. In an in­ter­view this week with Na­tion­al Journ­al, George com­pared the as­sign­ment to NSA’s de­vel­op­ment of “Vin­son,” a se­cure voice-en­cryp­tion unit that was a fore­run­ner of the cell phone.

“We de­signed that in 1957. We built the first mod­el in 1970, and we fixed everything we found wrong through the first few en­gin­eer­ing mod­els, and we fielded it in 1976. It took 19 years to get that thing out,” he said, con­trast­ing that with the 3-month time frame to reen­gin­eer Obama’s phone.

To do it, he as­sembled a core team of about a dozen, with up to an­oth­er 50 work­ing on the pro­ject. In the end, after tweak­ing the phone’s al­gorithms and en­gin­eer­ing, he presen­ted the new pres­id­ent with a severely lim­ited device. Obama could call and re­ceive calls from only a hand­ful of close friends—who first had to be briefed by the White House coun­sel’s of­fice and have their devices ex­amined. He could not click on any at­tach­ments and could not tweet.

“And he wasn’t play­ing Angry Birds, I can prom­ise you that,” joked George.

In Obama’s last year in of­fice, NSA re­placed his Black­Berry with a new phone. The lim­it­a­tions re­mained in force, as the pres­id­ent joked in an ap­pear­ance on "The To­night Show with Jimmy Fal­lon" on June 9. Obama re­called what he was told when giv­en the new device: “This is a great phone—state of the art. But it doesn’t take pic­tures, you can’t text, the phone doesn’t work, and you can’t play your mu­sic on it,” he joked.

George was watch­ing Fal­lon that night and laughed along with the pres­id­ent.

“I thought his char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion was right on," he said. "In fact, I laughed with my wife and told her, ‘Boy, did he get that right.’”

The lim­it­a­tions are crit­ic­al be­cause the threat is so dire, he said.

“We are all tar­gets,” he said. “But he has got a much big­ger bull’s-eye on his back than I do or any­body else.” He ad­ded it is al­most cer­tain a pres­id­ent would be sent false links, of­ten dis­guised as com­ing from le­git­im­ate sources.

“If someone can get in­to the sec­ret­ary of de­fense sys­tem and send a mes­sage to the pres­id­ent with a ‘You need to read this’ link, the chances are much bet­ter that he is go­ing to click on that than if it comes from some per­son he’s nev­er heard of," he said.

If a pres­id­ent is not care­ful, he could sur­render con­trol of his phone, his cam­era and the device’s mi­cro­phone and GPS.

“People are go­ing to try a lot harder, spend a lot more re­sources to get him. You’ve got to pro­tect your­self,” said George.

Trump’s post-elec­tion tweets also have raised the pos­sib­il­ity of hack­ers send­ing out fake tweets that look as if they came from Trump and have the po­ten­tial of af­fect­ing the stock mar­ket or trig­ger­ing for­eign crises. Two com­pan­ies already saw their val­ues drop fol­low­ing barbed early-morn­ing tweets from Trump.

On Dec. 6, he cri­ti­cized the amount he said—in­ac­cur­ately—Boe­ing was spend­ing on a new Air Force One, de­mand­ing, “Can­cel or­der!” Boe­ing’s shares lost al­most 1 per­cent at the open­ing of trad­ing on the New York Stock Ex­change. Six days later, Lock­heed Mar­tin suffered a more than 5 per­cent hit after Trump tweeted the cost of the F-35 fight­er jet pro­gram was “out of con­trol.”

“And,” George said, “those were really mild things he said. You could really tank a com­pany if you wanted to” with a fake tweet. “The im­pact he can have is phe­nom­en­al.”

For Trump, George sus­pects the an­swer will be giv­ing him mul­tiple devices.

“It’s not like he is only go­ing to have one device to do things from," he said. "And it’s not like he has to worry about car­ry­ing ex­tra devices. There are people who will be car­ry­ing stuff for him.”

George said the func­tion­al­ity of one device can be lim­ited to send­ing tweets. “This is the device that you only Twit­ter on. You don’t take phone calls, you don’t send emails. You Twit­ter on this and nobody is call­ing you on this.” An­oth­er phone would be used for calls to his fam­ily.

NSA of­fi­cials know, though, that no pres­id­ent has to listen to them. They can only hope Trump is as co­oper­at­ive as Obama was.

“He is the pres­id­ent; he gets to make the risk-man­age­ment de­cision,” George said. “The good news was that Obama was about as easy to work with as you could ima­gine. He didn’t fight us at any step. He took it really ser­i­ously, and what more could you ask for?”

With Trump, he said, “We can sug­gest. But no one is go­ing to tell him.” He ad­ded, “This is the pres­id­ent. He can do what he wants. But pres­id­ents are in­her­ently really smart people. They un­der­stand the risks that they take and they try to play the game right. You don’t get to be pres­id­ent if you don’t un­der­stand that kind of stuff.”