The hot microphone in lawmakers' pockets
- By Michael Campbell
- Jul 12, 2019
On Capitol Hill, a lawmaker’s typical day may consist of hundreds of conversations with a range of stakeholders. There are policy and strategy discussions with senior staff, meetings with constituents, issue-focused talks with lobbyists and activists, get-togethers with members of the same party or political coalition, private committee meetings, legislative discussions with colleagues and their staffs and closed-door fundraisers.
Over the course of these conversations, a variety of sensitive information may be revealed, either directly or indirectly, including bits that are never meant to be written down or otherwise reshared outside of the context of the discussion.
Each of these data points represent an extremely valuable form of currency for adversarial nations. While lawmakers have learned to self-censor their emails (thanks, Russia) and phone calls (thanks, China) for fear that they may end up on the front page, the revelations that occur during everyday conversations are largely unguarded and unbounded.
There’s a spy in my smartphone’s microphone
For adversarial nations, there are two ways to get an ear into these conversations. The first is physical surveillance, a risky, expensive and laborious process that involves some combination of setting up bugs in fixed locations and following the target throughout the day. The second is far simpler, and involves delivering microphone-hijacking spyware to the target’s smartphone, a repeatable mechanism that is designed to be unnoticeable to the lawmaker and largely untraceable from a cybersecurity standpoint. The choice is easy.
While we have yet to see news of a member of Congress being targeted with mobile spyware by a foreign nation, there are telltale signs that this is happening. In 2017, IMSI catchers that track location data of mobile phone users were detected near the White House and other sensitive locations in Washington, D.C, perhaps providing a vehicle for foreign spies to deliver spyware to the smartphones of targeted legislators. In April of last year, Michael Rogers, then-director of the National Security Agency, confirmed that the personal devices and accounts belonging to members of Congress are “prime targets for exploitation” by adversarial nations. And earlier this year, we learned of allegations that Iran hacked the personal smartphone of a candidate for prime minister of Israel, demonstrating the threat of mobile device hacking by foreign foes for politically motivated reasons.
Thinking differently about security
Government-provided cybersecurity for members of Congress has traditionally been limited to official systems and desktop computers on premises. In practice, this meant that while the sergeant at arms in both the House and Senate could offer cyber awareness training and provide recommendations for lawmakers’ personal devices, the protection of their personal smartphones was largely left to the individual office, where often a single IT professional would be responsible for ensuring that the devices and accounts of the lawmaker and the entire staff were secure. Only in December has that thinking changed, as a decision by the Federal Election Commission permitted lawmakers and their staff to use leftover campaign funds for securing personal devices, accounts and information.
Still more needs to be done. Specifically:
Personal smartphones should be provided with the same security protections afforded to government-issued devices. Hackers don’t discriminate between personal and official devices, so neither should security teams. Utilizing mobile device management or enterprise mobility management solutions would allow an administrator to, at a minimum, restrict and monitor microphone permissions assigned to a user’s apps, and perhaps restrict microphone usage in certain high-risk circumstances. In addition, providing a mobile threat defense solution could potentially help catch spyware that happens to slip past the mobile operating system’s protections.
Anti-surveillance tools should be adopted to provide protections even when a smartphone has been compromised. Given that software-based security measures -- whether available through the mobile operating systems or via third-party apps -- can be defeated by sophisticated hackers with relative ease, it’s best to provide a backstop security solution that works independently of the phone. Audio-masking smartphone cases can be provided as a way to prevent meaningful information from being picked up through hijacked microphones.
Consideration should be made for the personal smartphones within the lawmakers’ circle of trust. Just as threat actors may have hacked the personal smartphone of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly as a way of getting information from the president's advisors, an eavesdropper can gain access to many of a target’s conversations by hacking a member of their inner circle, whether that's the chief of staff or a spouse. As a result, the same tools provided for a lawmaker’s personal smartphone should be given to key staff, close family and other trusted parties with whom the legislator frequently interacts.
Mobile eavesdropping on lawmakers is a new kind of threat that requires new ways of thinking about information and its protection. Rather than taking the usual approach of reacting to a security crisis after it happens, let’s take a proactive approach to protecting the integrity of our democracy and, by extension, our national interests.
Michael Campbell is director of government & federal business at Privoro.