“If it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted after Russian leader Vladimir Putin gave President Donald Trump a soccer ball as a gift during their press conference in Helsinki, Finland, last week.
Turns out the soccer ball — which resembled the Adidas 2018 FIFA World Cup ball — might have been equipped with a chip commonly used in sports equipment.
The chip, if it’s installed, can connect with cellphones so people can get exclusive content and other updates. This “NFC” — Near Field Communication — technology appears in a lot of sports equipment and apparel, to the disappointment of those hoping for an Americans-esque espionage plot. (It’s the same technology used to pay with your phone. Vox’s Dylan Matthews has a similar chip in his hand.)
Bloomberg first spotted the logo for the NFC tag on the ball, which indicates it could have been turned over to Trump with that chip. (It also could have been removed, or could be a different ball from the one Adidas is selling.) The White House told Bloomberg that Putin’s present had undergone “the security screening process that is done for all gifts,” but wouldn’t elaborate further on security procedures.
Adidas declined to comment to Bloomberg as to whether this chip could be co-opted by Russian spies, but per Bloomberg, the Adidas website indicates that “it’s not possible to delete or rewrite the encoded parameters.”
So Putin probably wasn’t conspicuously planting a bug with the president. But Graham’s initial comments aren’t totally far-fetched. The Soviet Union was notorious for trying to bug the United States during the Cold War, and did a pretty decent job of it, as a Politico story from last May noted.
There were concerns about the security risks during Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak last year, when photographers from TASS, Russia’s state-run media agency attended the meeting — with all of their electronic equipment. (Trump ended up revealing the sensitive intelligence for free.)
Either way, Trump handed the ball to his wife Melania, with instructions to give it to their son Barron — so the most closely guarded US secrets are probably still safe.