Trump’s wiretap paranoia and the reality of modern surveillance


The presidents claim that his phone was bugged is straight out of a cold-war time warp. Security services have far easier ways of intercepting communications now

One of the oddities in Donald Trumps wiretapping claims is how antiquated is his view of how the security services work in the digital age.

In tweets on Saturday, the president claimed that Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower in October ahead of Novembers election. How low has President gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!

Trumps tweets suggest he is stuck is a cold-war time warp, with spies still using the kind of techniques found in John le Carr novels rather than 21st-century surveillance.

The US security agencies whether the FBI, CIA or one of a dozen others no longer have to engage in wiretapping of the kind that Trump hints at. Until a decade or so ago, a wiretap meant connecting to a targets landline or placing bugs in a house. Security staff might have to break in during the night or turn up during the day pretending to be cleaners or phone engineers, placing bugs directly into phones or under tables or hiding miniature cameras in light fittings.

Barack Obama: lacked the power to mount the kind of operation Trump has accused him of. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

For the security services, such operations were risky. A bug might be found. A suspicious click might be heard during a phone conversation, alerting the target. And there was always the danger of being caught as during the Watergate scandal, which Trump referred to in one of his tweets.

In 1972 burglars working on behalf of president Richard Nixons re-election campaign broke into the Democratic party headquarters in Washington, and successfully installed a listening device on at least one phone. Things went wrong when they decided they had to break in a second time to carry out repairs and were caught.

But there is no need for such risks these days. The past two decades have been a golden age for the security services, courtesy of the digital revolution. There would have been no need to break into Trump Tower. The security agencies can access electronic devices across the planet with ease. They can listen in to a targets mobile, even if it is switched off. If the target is paranoid and stuffs the mobile into a microwave or fridge freezer to render it inert, the security services can pick up the targets conversations by switching to the mobiles of others in the vicinity.

Former US President Richard Nixon resigned after illegal wiretapping of the Democratic partys headquarters in the Watergate complex in 1972. Photograph: HO/Reuters

They can access just about anyones computer or laptop, again even those that are turned off. The same for cameras on computers and laptops, which can also be switched on remotely.

The technology to turn on smart phones remotely has been around for at least a decade. A former CIA cyber-security specialist has explained how the security services can set up a cell network tower and, once a phone connects, they can take it over. They can mimic the process of the phone closing down and make it appear blank, whereas, in reality, a mic remains live. A former FBI specialist has said that the ability to use cameras on computers and laptops has also been available for at least a decade. The security services can use malware to take control of the camera, ensuring there is no light or any other indication that would allow a person to know they are being watched.

Who needs wiretaps when there are so many potential listening devices around these days? Even the word wiretap is antiquated. The security services and privacy advocates are more likely now to talk about interception, a more accurate description of what they do.

Trump has offered no evidence to back up his claim. The recently retired director of national intelligence James Clapper said the Obama-ordered wiretapping did not happen, though Clapper is an unreliable witness, having misled Congress in 2013 by stating there was no mass surveillance in the US. FBI director James Comey also denies the claim but Comey, too, is tainted, given his late intervention in the election race with damaging comments about Hillary Clintons emails. Denials from Obamas own national security team are more credible, not least because though a president enjoys sweeping powers he cannot order the security services to mount the kind of operation Trump has in mind.

FBI director James Comey: denies Trumps claim. Photograph: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images

Wiretaps are as old as electronic communications. The telegraph began to come into use in the 1840s. Almost two decades later, during the American civil war, it became commonplace for both sides to climb telegraph poles and tap into communications. Abraham Lincoln, in spite of nods towards privacy, was an avid reader of intercepted communications.

The arrival of the phone in the 1870s offered new opportunities. Throughout the 20th century, police regularly used wiretaps to trap criminals, while the intelligence services targeted those who were deemed to be threats to national security.

During the cold war, diplomats as a matter of routine assumed their phones were tapped and their offices bugged, and not just Americans based in Moscow or Beijing, but all around the world. CIA officers based in embassies almost always had a safe room that had been swept for bugs and where sensitive conversations could be held in relative security.

While the Watergate conspiracy is the most infamous US case involving wiretapping and politics, equally infamous is the list of operations conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by the CIA and FBI. The targets included prominent individuals seen as potentially undermining national security, including anti-Vietnam war protesters, trade unionists and journalists.

Martin Luther King, targeted for surveillance by the then head of the FBI Edgar Hoover. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

Among those was Martin Luther King, who the head of the FBI, Edgar Hoover, suspected of being influenced by communists. Hoover asked the then attorney-general Robert Kennedy in 1963 to authorise surveillance requests to install bugs in his home, office and hotels where he stayed on trips. No evidence ever emerged linking King to communism, but they did record at least one sexual encounter.

Throughout the 20th century there were intermittent challenges in Congress and the courts attempting to redress the balance between intrusive surveillance and the right to privacy. Amid the panic in the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the president secretly sanctioned warrantless wiretapping surveillance of phones, the internet and any other electronic communications without the need for a warrant. When this was revealed in the New York Times in 2005, the Bush administration reversed the order and there was a return to warrants.

This row was dwarfed in 2013 when the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the scale of mass surveillance the agencies prefer bulk data collection not only of foreigners but of US citizens, which the intelligence agencies had publicly denied up until that point.

Among the many intercept programmes revealed by Snowden was Tempora, run by the NSAs UK counterpart GCHQ, and shared with the Americans. This was a kind of wiretap on a scale that would have been beyond the imagination of the American civil war soldiers who climbed telegraph poles, or the FBI agents breaking into Kings hotel room to plant a bug.

GCHQ placed intercepts on the network of fibre-optic cables that carry much of the worlds internet traffic, offering a window into the world of an estimated two billion users of the worldwide web.

The US intelligence agencies have so far made a distinction when denying surveillance of Trump. There have been no denials about surveillance of those associates who might have been in contact with Russians. Those kind of contacts would be relatively easy to establish, not through break-ins or even physical surveillance which has not been made redundant by the digital age, with agencies running teams trained in following targets without, hopefully, being seen. With so much information hoovered up and available to the agencies, all they have to do is sift through those communications to establish the extent if any of links between Russia and Trumps team.

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