The Cable

Trump Thinks the U.S. Is Obsolete on Cyber. Are His Hotels Also?

Hackers reportedly stole credit card data from the GOP frontrunner's hotels.


In a March interview with the New York Times, GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump declared that the United States is “obsolete” on cyber. The same might be said about the real estate mogul’s chain of hotels.

Noted cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs reports that banking industry sources claim to have seen a pattern of fraud from a large number of credit cards used at Trump hotels, indicating that card data were stolen from his business’s computer systems.

The story remains unconfirmed, though the Trump organization told Krebs it is investigating the breach. The Trump campaign did not respond Tuesday to questions from Foreign Policy.

Krebs serves as something of an early-warning system in the cybersecurity media world and is often the first to report breaches of this nature. Most recently, he broke the news that the dating website Ashley Madison had suffered a massive breach of its servers.

According to Krebs, the breach at Trump properties include facilities in New York, Hawaii, and Toronto. The possible theft was discovered after bankers noticed that a series of credit cards used in fraudulent transactions had also been used recently at Trump properties.

During the presidential campaign, Trump has frequently cited his business acumen and management skills to make the case why he is uniquely qualified to become president. If confirmed, the breach at Trump’s properties is at least the second time hackers have broken into his company’s computers and stolen customers’ credit card information.

Trump’s hotel properties are by no means alone in suffering computer breaches. Hilton Hotels, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and Mandarin Oriental have all been hacked in the last year, with customer credit card data pilfered.

While Trump has plenty of company when it comes to the apparent insecurity of his hotels’ computer systems, his comments about “obsolete” U.S. capabilities in cyberspace struck most analysts as ignorant of developments within the National Security Agency.

The United States is generally recognized as the world’s leading power in cyberspace. It has deployed offensive weapons to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, and has developed extensive technology and techniques for online espionage. Russia is typically described by NSA Director Michael Rogers as a “peer competitor” to the United States in cyberspace, and China is believed to be investing heavily to develop its own capabilities to match American and Russian hacking tools.

Just a glance, for example, at documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden proves U.S. capabilities as far from “obsolete.” The NSA’s Tailored Access Operations, the agency’s elite hacking unit, is able to intercept computer shipments to their intelligence targets and implant malware on devices before they arrive on a customer’s doorstep. The unit is also believed to have targeted undersea fiberoptic cables that carry massive quantities of Internet data, according to Der Spiegel.

Those are far from obsolete techniques. Given that his hotels keep getting hacked, perhaps Trump’s understanding of computer systems is what is obsolete.

Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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