Any computer brings with it the risk of hacking. This is true of our computers and phones, and it’s also true about all of the Internet-of-Things devices that are increasingly part of our lives. These large and small appliances, cars, medical devices, toys and — yes — exercise machines are all computers at their core, and they’re all just as vulnerable. Presidents face special risks when it comes to the IoT, but Biden has the National Security Agency to help him handle them.
Not everyone is so lucky, and the rest of us need something more structural.
U.S. presidents have long tussled with their security advisers over tech. The NSA often customizes devices, but that means eliminating features. In 2010, President Barack Obama complained that his presidential BlackBerry device was “no fun” because only 10 people were allowed to contact him on it. In 2013, security prevented him from getting an iPhone. When he finally got an upgrade to his BlackBerry in 2016, he complained that his new “secure” phone couldn’t take pictures, send texts or play music. His “hardened” iPad to read daily intelligence briefings was presumably similarly handicapped. We don’t know what the NSA did to these devices, but they certainly modified the software and physically removed the cameras and microphones — and possibly the wireless Internet connection.
President Donald Trump resisted efforts to secure his phones. We don’t know the details, only that they were regularly replaced, with the government effectively treating them as burner phones.
The risks are serious. We know that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on Trump’s phones. Hackers can remotely turn on microphones and cameras, listening in on conversations. They can grab copies of any documents on the device. They can also use those devices to further infiltrate government networks, maybe even jumping onto classified networks that the devices connect to. If the devices have physical capabilities, those can be hacked as well. In 2007, the wireless features of Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s pacemaker were disabled out of fears that it could be hacked to assassinate him. In 1999, the NSA banned Furbies from its offices, mistakenly believing that they could listen and learn.
Physically removing features and components works, but the results are increasingly unacceptable. The NSA could take Biden’s Peloton and rip out the camera, microphone and Internet connection, and that would make it secure — but then it would just be a normal (albeit expensive) stationary bike. Maybe Biden wouldn’t accept that, and he’d demand that the NSA do even more work to customize and secure the Peloton part of the bicycle. Maybe Biden’s security agents could isolate his Peloton in a specially shielded room where it couldn’t infect other computers, and warn him not to discuss national security in its presence.
This might work, but it certainly doesn’t scale. As president, Biden can direct substantial resources to solving his cybersecurity problems. The real issue is what everyone else should do. The president of the United States is a singular espionage target, but so are members of his staff and other administration officials.
Members of Congress are targets, as are governors and mayors, police officers and judges, CEOs and directors of human rights organizations, nuclear power plant operators and election officials. All of these people have smartphones, tablets and laptops. Many have Internet-connected cars and appliances, vacuums, bikes and doorbells. Every one of those devices is a potential security risk, and all of those people are potential national security targets. But none of those people will get their Internet-connected devices customized by the NSA.
That is the real cybersecurity issue. Internet connectivity brings with it features we like. In our cars, it means real-time navigation, entertainment options, automatic diagnostics and more. In a Peloton, it means everything that makes it more than a stationary bike. In a pacemaker, it means continuous monitoring by your doctor — and possibly your life saved as a result. In an iPhone or iPad, it means … well, everything. We can search for older, non-networked versions of some of these devices, or the NSA can disable connectivity for the privileged few of us. But the result is the same: in Obama’s words, “no fun.”
And unconnected options are increasingly hard to find. In 2016, I tried to find a new car that didn’t come with Internet connectivity, but I had to give up: There were no options to omit that in the class of car I wanted. Similarly, it’s getting harder to find major appliances without a wireless connection. As the price of connectivity continues to drop, more and more things will only be available Internet-enabled.
Internet security is national security — not because the president is personally vulnerable but because we are all part of a single network. Depending on who we are and what we do, we will make different trade-offs between security and fun. But we all deserve better options.
Regulations that force manufacturers to provide better security for all of us are the only way to do that. We need minimum security standards for computers of all kinds. We need transparency laws that give all of us, from the president on down, sufficient information to make our own security trade-offs. And we need liability laws that hold companies liable when they misrepresent the security of their products and services.
I’m not worried about Biden. He and his staff will figure out how to balance his exercise needs with the national security needs of the country. Sometimes the solutions are weirdly customized, such as the anti-eavesdropping tent that Obama used while traveling. I am much more worried about the political activists, journalists, human rights workers and oppressed minorities around the world who don’t have the money or expertise to secure their technology, or the information that would give them the ability to make informed decisions on which technologies to choose.