The last thing any of us expected to see when President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin met on July 16 was for the Russian president to gift Trump a shiny new… soccer ball? The exchange, aside from it being a little odd, set off a tweetstorm all pointing to one Trojan horse-shaped elephant in the room: the ball is probably bugged. Turns out, those jokes weren’t that far off.Putin’s soccer ball gift to Trump had a transmitter chip, so, like, 2018 is basically an IRL spy movie.
During Trump and Putin’s joint press conference in Helsinki on Monday, July 16, Putin pulled out a red-and-white soccer ball and gifted it to Trump. The World Cup had just ended in Russia, and since the U.S. will host in 2026, Putin apparently felt it would be a nice gesture. But with the rocky relationship between the United States and Russia and allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election hanging in the air, people joked that Putin must have bugged the soccer ball.
But it was just a joke — or was it? According to Bloomberg, markings on the Adidas-branded ball show that it contained a chip with a tiny antenna that can transmit to nearby phones, so those jokes weren’t completely misguided.
True the jokes weren’t totally off, but they weren’t spot on either. While it’s true that the ball might have contained a transmitter, it’s not because America is stuck in some spy thriller. Rather, the chip is a feature of the Adidas Telstar 18 balls that were used in the World Cup, according to the Adidas websites. If you take a look at the Adidas site, you’ll find that the balls contain what’s known as an NFC or “Near-Field Communication” chip that’s placed under a tag on the ball that shows a little WiFi symbol. Bloomberg notes that pictures taken of the ball Putin gave to Trump show a logo for the NFC chip. Even though the chip is usually placed under those logos, it’s not been confirmed whether the specific ball Trump received has the chip.
The NFC chip was introduced at this year’s World Cup to up the fan experience. According to Digital Trends, fans were able to purchase the balls and scan the NFC code with their phones to unlock exclusive content like videos and information about the games and even the ball itself. It’s all just fun and pretty harmless, unless you’re worried about, let’s say, Russian hacking. Adidas declined to comment on whether the chip could be vulnerable to Russian hacking, according to Bloomberg. However, the Adidas website says that the chip can’t be modified, so it doesn’t seem like Russia could use the ball to do much bugging of the White House or anything else.
Because Russian election hacking is a topic that’s on everyone’s minds, so if the Russian president gives the U.S. president a gift with any sort of transmitter in it, you better believe people want to know if it’s hackable. Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, multiple U.S. intelligence organizations released a report confirming that Russia meddled in the presidential election, and that the Russians had a clear preference for Trump. Since then, Trump’s White House has been running against the backdrop of a probe by special counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. In fact, Trump and Putin’s Helsinki meeting came on the heels of a July 13 indictment which charged 12 Russian nationals with allegedly hackingDemocratic party emails and computer networks, as part of Mueller’s investigation.
TBH, I don’t see a soccer ball being the undoing of America either way. I’m sure that if people want to hack the U.S. government they have more clever ways of doing it than something they saw on Get Smart.