Is Trump’s Twitter account a national security threat? – Politico
Donald Trump has years of experience launching Twitter wars. But now, as he prepares to take the highest office in the country, there are growing fears that his tweets could spur a genuine national security crisis.
Intelligence and defense specialists believe the president-elect’s use of the popular and powerful social media network is already being used by foreign agencies to analyze his personality, track his habits and detect clues about what to expect from a Trump-led American government.
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And that’s just based on what Trump writes on Twitter. It’s not even counting the vulnerabilities that could arise if overseas hackers invade his phone and digital accounts.
“We’ve never had a president that’s shared so much of themselves, not just what they’re saying, but their psychological ticks in such an overt manner, and you can be sure that foreign actors are studying that, too,” said P.W. Singer, a defense expert and co-author of “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar.” “We’re beginning to see what excites him, what angers him, what sets him off. We’ve never had this ability to read so much on what a president is thinking.”
Trump, who prefers mobile phones to computers, is highly attached to his Twitter account (@realDonaldTrump), using the platform to share his thoughts deep into the night. Days after his stunning election victory, he was reportedly worried he would not be able to keep his Android phone upon reaching the Oval Office, suggesting he plans to keep tweeting even after he’s sworn in. During his first sitdown interview as president-elect, he told “60 Minutes” that he would be “very restrained” in his Twitter use while in office, before using his account to rail against The New York Times the same day the interview aired.
Trump’s following of 17.2 million is likely to expand as he takes office, and his disdain for the mainstream media may bolster his desire to keep up his direct outreach to the public through Twitter.
For the most part, the president-elect has used Twitter to comment on people and institutions on the domestic front, or to defend himself against their criticisms. His tweets are believed to have even influenced the stock market, including on Monday, when his criticism of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program was followed by a drop in the aerospace company’s market value. On several occasions, however, Trump has ventured into the international realm.
In recent days, amid lingering Chinese anger over Trump’s decision to break U.S. protocol and speak directly to the president of Taiwan, Trump, using two tweets, wrote: “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into.. their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!” On Monday, he used Twitter to sow doubts about claims he’s not hard enough on Russia.
Granted, foreign intelligence agencies will likely look at all of Trump’s public utterances — his speeches, interviews, written press releases — as well as those of his aides to try to understand one of the more unusual men ever to win the White House. (U.S. intelligence analysts do similar studies of foreign leaders, especially in countries such as Iran and North Korea, whose governments are considered hostile and with whom U.S. communication is limited.)
But so far, at least, Twitter has proven one of the purest distillations of Trump around — a raw version of a businessman-turned-politician keen on ignoring the traditional conventions of the presidency.
Twitter’s 140-character limit on tweets appears to appeal to Trump’s short attention span and his preference for rapid-fire interactions. But 140 characters often don’t leave space for much context, explanation or nuance. So what Trump writes may come across as more forthright and harsher than what foreign governments are accustomed to in the diplomatic arena. The risk for a misunderstanding is, therefore, higher.
Foreign analysts following Trump’s Twitter may not be inclined to simply take everything he writes at face value, especially when it comes to highly sensitive subjects. But, using sophisticated data tools, they may look for patterns that, over time, can help them better predict if Trump is being serious. In all likelihood, many intelligence specialists overseas have probably already done such analyses based on Trump’s more than 34,000 tweets so far.
“If Trump’s comments accurately reflect his intent, then we’re giving the opponents a head start in dealing with the incoming presidential administration,” a former U.S. intelligence officer said of Trump’s Twitter habits. “If his comments are meant to conceal other intentions, then we’re doing a pretty good job in misleading our adversaries.”
A foreign government may check to see if Trump uses certain types of words before he takes certain types of actions. If Trump keeps tweeting during his presidency, a foreign entity may analyze what types of things he writes before making a policy announcement. (If Trump were to enable Twitter’s geo-location services, that could also grab the attention of overseas actors, though it doesn’t appear he uses that feature.) Even a lengthy silence from Trump could be a signal of some sort, sources connected to the intelligence community told POLITICO.
In August, David Robinson, a data scientist, published an analysis of Trump’s tweets using digital tools.
It indicated that there were at least two people tweeting out under Trump’s account. The tweets from an Android phone appeared to be coming from the Manhattan billionaire himself — they were angrier and more negative. The ones from an iPhone were more quotidian, sharing announcements and photos; those were likely posted by one or more Trump campaign aides. (Some tweets may have been written by a staffer trying to sound like Trump.)
“A lot of ‘emotionally charged’ words, like ‘badly’, ‘crazy’, ‘weak’, and ‘dumb’, were overwhelmingly more common on Android,” Robinson wrote, meaning it was Trump who was probably behind those particular tweets.
The U.S. has occasionally found itself in diplomatic dust-ups thanks to Twitter.
In September, during President Barack Obama’s visit to China, the Defense Intelligence Agency tweeted “Classy as always China” after the American leader was deprived of a normal red-carpet arrival due to a dispute over which stairs he could use to leave his plane. The Pentagon-based agency later deleted the tweet and apologized.
Four years earlier in Egypt, during the brief presidency of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo slapped the Islamist organization’s English-language Twitter account after it expressed concern for the safety of U.S. diplomats amid violent protests near their building.
“Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too,” the embassy tweeted, implying the Brotherhood was using a very different tone in its non-English messages. The Americans later deleted the tweet.
Although Twitter has been around for most of Barack Obama’s presidency, the outgoing president has been careful in using the medium. He was allowed to start using his own official account, @POTUS, only a couple of years ago: in May 2015, he sent out an inaugural tweet. The @POTUS account will be made available to Trump once he is sworn in.
The @BarackObama account is run by Organizing for Action, a liberal group that has long supported the president. It was not immediately clear if Obama would take over that account once he leaves office, but he’s used it in the past, signing tweets he composed with a “-bo”.
The White House Communications Agency, a military division that handles presidential communications security, referred questions about Trump’s Twitter account and plans to safeguard his digital devices to the president-elect’s transition team. The transition team did not respond to a request for comment. To date, it’s not clear if Trump’s phone conversations with foreign leaders are fully secured, though his team has said precautions have been taken.
Even as foreign capitals sift through Trump’s tweets, there are questions about whether the social media company should take away his account for calling out individual Americans on Twitter. Trump’s targets have included an Indianapolis union leader and a college student, who have faced death threats and harassment as a result.
When asked for comment about whether Trump should be booted off the platform, a spokesperson for the company replied: “The Twitter Rules apply to all accounts.”