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Smartphone Security Threats for Political Leaders



For decades, government-affiliated actors within authoritarian and democratically challenged countries have used digital threats to target activists, journalists and other perceived opponents. Only in recent years has commercially available mobile spyware – ostensibly intended for lawful interception – become the tool of choice for these actors, providing the ability to remotely capture the conversations of chosen targets. Despite export controls and attempts at self-regulation, vendors of these tools have yet to demonstrate the ability to properly prevent egregious misuses of spyware by nations with notorious records of abusive targeting.


Lately, we’ve seen increasingly risky behavior, with actors targeting not just domestic members of civil society but residents living abroad and even children. And without any global framework for policing these types of commercial spyware, the problem is likely to get worse. It’s not hard to imagine a high-profile figure in the United States becoming the next target. Threat actors could, for example, target the Secretary of State as a way to get an edge in foreign policy matters, or perhaps target a celebrity as a form of retaliation for advocating against the human rights abuses taking place in the threat actor’s country.


The smartphone communications of world leaders have long been an eavesdropping target by other nations. In 2013, reports of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone being tapped by the National Security Agency (NSA) caused a bit of an international kerfuffle. More recently, a story in The New York Times revealed that Chinese spies are listening to President Trump’s calls as a way of learning how he thinks and how he can be persuaded, all for the purpose of keeping a trade war with the United States from escalating further.


According to security expert Bruce Schneier, if a leader like President Trump is using a personal, off-the-shelf smartphone, there’s a “100 percent” chance that the microphones and cameras are being monitored to spy on the high-value target and their conversations. Edward Snowden detailed one possible method for how this takes place, involving a specially crafted text message that the target never sees. As more details about international smartphone espionage come to light, we’ll see world leaders face greater pressure to secure their personal phones against the threat of compromised cameras and microphones.


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