Unconfirmed hack of Liz Truss’ phone prompts calls for “urgent investigation”

By | October 31, 2022
Liz Truss, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, taking a picture on her phone on May 1, 2018, in London.
Enlarge / Liz Truss, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, taking a picture on her phone on May 1, 2018, in London.
Getty Images

British opposition politicians are calling for an “urgent investigation” into an unconfirmed media report that spies suspected of working for Russia hacked the phone of former Prime Minister Liz Truss while she was serving as foreign minister.

The report, published by the UK’s Mail on Sunday newspaper, cited unnamed people speaking on condition of anonymity saying that Truss’ personal cell phone had been hacked “by agents suspected of working for the Kremlin.” The attackers acquired “up to a year’s worth of messages,” discussing “highly sensitive discussions with senior international foreign ministers about the war in Ukraine, including detailed discussions about arms shipments.”

The Mail said that the hack was discovered during the Conservative Party’s first leadership campaign over the summer, which ultimately named Truss prime minister. The discovery was reportedly “suppressed” by Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister at the time of the campaign, and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, with the latter reportedly imposing a news blackout.

So far, no other news outlets have produced independent reporting confirming the hacking claims. UK government spokespeople have declined to comment “on individuals’ security arrangements.”

UK politicians, however, have called for a formal probe to investigate the claims.

“There are immensely important national security issues raised by an attack like this by a hostile state which will have been taken extremely seriously by our intelligence and security agencies,” the Labor Party’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said over the weekend. “There are also serious security questions around why and how this information has been leaked or released right now which must also be urgently investigated.”

Layla Moran, foreign affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats party, asked why the report was suppressed from the public and suggested it may have been done to pave the way for Truss’ rise to prime minister.

“We need an urgent independent investigation to uncover the truth,” Moran said. “If it turns out this information was withheld from the public to protect Liz Truss’ leadership bid, that would be unforgivable.”

Cell phones come with varying levels of security. At the top of the stack are iPhones and Pixels, which are equipped with state-of-the-art security features and receive regular vulnerability fixes directly from Apple and Google, respectively. Hacking one of these devices generally requires exploits that sell for $1 million or more. Many discount phones are at the low end of the stack, and these devices often run outdated software as soon as they’re released from the factory.

Two photos published by Getty Images in May 2018 (this story’s intro image) and September 2019, show Truss using what is almost certainly a Samsung Galaxy Note8, a model that falls somewhere between the two extremes. This phone was eligible to receive security updates through at least October 2021, but the last major OS version release able to run on it was Android 9. That omission made it impossible for users to get additional security protections introduced in the September 2019 rollout of Android 10.

LIz Truss speaks on her phone on September 25, 2019.
Enlarge / LIz Truss speaks on her phone on September 25, 2019.
Getty Images

It’s unknown what kind of phone Truss was using at the time of the reported hack earlier this year. Still, it’s concerning that a UK politician might ever have used a Galaxy Note8 when discussing political or state secrets. In any event, hackers backed by the Kremlin would likely have all the resources they’d need to compromise any device Truss used, regardless of the model. A more secure phone, however, would require more resources for the hackers.

There’s no indication if the UK government will launch a formal investigation into the matter.