If there’s anything that delighted President Trump over his first week in office, it was the White House’s telephones. “These are the most beautiful phones I’ve ever used in my life,” he told the New York Times. Later in the week, he gushed again to Sean Hannity: “I have great phones, I have phones—let me tell you. The technology that we have in this country is incredible.”
Trump shares the assessment with a surprising sympathizer: a 43 year-old Dutch blogger toiling away in one of the internet’s more obscure corners of obsession. For the past five years, Peter Koop has run a cryptology website called Electrospaces.net that focuses on top-level government communications technology. He’s gotten almost 2.3 million page views, including over 100,000 for a 2013 post on then-President Barack Obama’s beloved Blackberry.
Koop’s main sources of information are White House photos. He rarely misses an opportunity to spot a new phone. A picture of Obama delivering a birthday cake to his personal secretary, for example, allowed him to show that her desk got a new Cisco 8800-series before his did. Another photo showed six phones on the desk of former Director of National Intelligence Director James Clapper. Koop identified them all—from the “almost legendary” STU-III to the “almost iconic” Cisco 7975 made famous by the Counter-Terrorism Unit on 24.
Koop’s stories aren’t just Politico scooplets, though. He writes at length on everything related to the phones, from their security protocols to their aesthetics. Koop even took Obama to task for complaining that that the White House’s phones were less “cool” than he anticipated. (Koop argued the IST-2 Obama inherited was actually “quite a cool phone.”)
As for the current President, Koop isn’t paying attention only to Trump’s adoration of his new phones. There’s the outstanding issue of Trump’s continued use of what looks like a 2012-vintage Samsung Galaxy S III, which is believed to be the device from which Trump sends his personal tweets. Washingtonian spoke with Koop over an unsecured Skype call to get his take on the President’s new favorite gadget and attachment to his old phone.
What led you to start Electrospaces?
It really started as a hobby. I’ve been interested in those issues for well over 20 years. I’ve read a lot about these things. I also have a small collection of crypto equipment and secure telephones and those kind of things. Well, I thought maybe it’s interesting to write a bit about it. Especially about special telephone equipment. Also, the United States is quite open and transparent about the equipment they use. In many other countries, governments are far more restrictive and have far more secrecy about the equipment they use. The US is really different. So it’s a lot easier to write about.
Could you talk a little bit about the phone system that the White House is currently using under Donald Trump?
It’s the same one as under President Obama. Nothing has changed yet. Basically there are two different systems. There’s an unclassified system that’s used for all the non-secure calls. And there’s also the secure system, which is used for classified phone calls. It’s a highly secure system, which is protected with sophisticated encryption systems. And that’s of course only to call a limited number of people.
Trump said he likes the phones because the words “explode in the air.” You say it and it’s gone forever. How does that kind of encryption work?
Apparently he was talking about the secure telephone system there. I don’t know what exactly he means by that phrase, but apparently it was his way to say it’s the most secure system in the world. And that he was really confident that no one was able to intercept those systems. That’s my best guess.
How are these phones, in Trump’s words, “beautiful”?
The non-secure system really is the latest type of Cisco IP phone. That’s actually quite nice. Really bright full color screen. When you look at the phones from the previous office of Mr. Trump in Trump Tower he on his desk only had a quite old fashioned telephone set from the 1990s. So for him it must be quite a big difference and quite a nice phone with a colorful display.
Trump still appears to have that old Android, though. How easy would it be for a determined hacker to infiltrate that?
As far I know, what the reports say is that he still uses his old Android smartphone. It’s very interesting because when Obama took office he was really forced to give up his Blackberry and the security people were really eager to make sure he couldn’t use an unsecure device anymore. For a foreign intelligence agency, it is really a piece of cake to get into an ordinary cell or smartphone. That’s no problem. It’s very insecure.
This interview has been condensed and edited.