When Vladimir Putin first handed the World Cup soccer ball to President Trump at their much-analyzed and criticized presser at the Helsinki Summit, some wondered aloud if it might be bugged. Well, as Bloomberg figured out, it turns out that it actually was — just not in the way conspiracy theorists might’ve hoped.
“Markings on the ball indicate that it contained a chip with a tiny antenna that transmits to nearby phones,” Bloomberg reported Wednesday. “But rather than a spy device, the chip is an advertised feature of the Adidas AG ball.”
Closer examination of photographs from the paranoia-inflaming summit found that the particular Adidas ball Putin handed Trump contained a logo for a near-field communication chip, which is placed in the ball under the logo. Here’s an image of the logo posted by Adidas:
“The chip allows fans to access player videos, competitions and other content by bringing their mobile devices close to the ball,” Bloomberg explains. “The feature is included in the 2018 FIFA World Cup match ball that’s sold on the Adidas website for $165 (reduced to $83 in the past week).”
So, Bloomberg asked, could Russia use the transmitter as a vector to “hack” the White House? While Adidas declined to directly answer that question, Bloomberg found that there’s no evidence to suggest that the chip has any “security vulnerabilities” and Adidas says it’s “not possible to delete or rewrite the encoded parameters.”
But Bloomberg was not satisfied. What about if Russia replaced Adidas’ NFC chip “with actual spy gear” or “fabricated” the entire ball? The White House smacked down that theory by noting that the ball underwent the same rigorous screening as all other gifts.
Bloomberg was still not quite ready yet to fully dismiss the soccer ball hacking theory, noting that NFC chips “can be programmed to initiate an attack on a phone, at least one hacker has shown.” However, it only works by convincing the user to agree to install malware on their device, so Trump would have to fall for an obvious malware trick — and apparently only the Clinton team does that.
For those interested, Adidas provides the following description of how its NFC chip works:
“The NFC enabled device (most smartphones/tablets) sends radio frequency signals that interact with the NFC tag (in this case, inserted in the Telstar 18). The signal allows the device to communicate with the tag, which in the case of the Telstar 18 tag, is passive and only sends out information, while the other device (the NFC enabled mobile) is active and can both send and receive information. The NFC enabled device will receive the information from the tag, which will then open the Telstar 18 experience.”