- The New York Times was able to track the movements of President Donald Trump using mobile phone data.
- The Times said it used leaked phone data to track the movements of someone in his entourage, believed to be a Secret Service agent, as well as found the agent’s name and home address.
- The Times said it replicated the exercise and identified workers at numerous sensitive sites in Washington, DC, including the Pentagon, the Supreme Court, and Capitol Hill.
- The ease with which non-experts at The Times could do this shows the extreme vulnerability in location data. Hostile states are almost certainly able to do far more.
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The New York Times was able to track the precise movements of President Donald Trump by combining leaked location data with public information, showing the ease with which a phone’s location data can be turned into a spying tool, potentially compromising national security.
The Times said that it got the data from anonymous whistleblowers concerned about this vulnerability and a lack of regulations, and that it took only minutes to turn a massive anonymised data set – with 50 billion location “pings” from the phones of more than 12 million people in the US related to their movements in 2016 and 2017 – into specific information on Trump.
The Times said that it was able to track Trump using just one of these phones and that it repeated the exercise with phones belonging to people across secure parts of the US government.
The Trump-linked phone is believed to belong to a Secret Service agent in his entourage, The Times said. It pinged at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida before heading to two other golf clubs and then back to Mar-a-Lago.
The locations matched public information on Trump’s activities at the time, The Times said.
The Times said the phone also pinged “at the nearby Secret Service field office and events with elected officials.”
This person’s movements outside work hours could also be tracked, The Times said – leading to a home address, a name, and identities of family members. The Times did not publish this information.
The Times also said that it could track people in locations like the White House, Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, military bases, and the FBI’s headquarters, again leading to verifiable home addresses and names.
The Times observed that such data could lead to compromising information, like evidence of extramarital affairs or medical problems.
It said it found that one person who was frequently in the Pentagon also made visits to a mental-health and substance-use facility.
Insecure security practices have been a hallmark of the Trump administration. The president’s phone conversations have previously put national security at risk, and he did not use a secure phone to tweet until months into his presidency. Mar-a-Lago is also said to have lax security.
However, The Times painted a picture of a problem that is not due to Trump’s actions but is instead a nationwide (and indeed international) problem born of poor regulation, low public awareness, and unscrupulous private companies.
The result, The Times said, is that tracking and identifying people is easy – and that there is no regulation to stop the exchange of such data between different parties and companies for profit.
Experts warned The Times about the risk that such vulnerabilities could create for the US and how they could be exploited by countries like Russia or China.
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