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Kamala Harris is on to something: AirPods are bad

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

AirPods are bad, people. I’ve said it for years. In 2016, when Apple first debuted the overpriced accessories, I wrote that wireless headphones were like tampons without strings – missing the crucial feature that helps you find them when you need to.

As the years have gone by, I’ve clung steadfastly to my wired headphone sets. (I say headphone sets, plural, because I need two pairs, one to plug into the headphone jack in my laptop and one to plug into the non-headphone jack in my iPhone. I frequently think that the people I can’t hear on Zoom calls are on mute when I actually just have the wrong pair of earbuds in my ears. I don’t care; I won’t change.)

Now, all the smartest tech and security people are saying it too: wired headphones are simply better than wireless headphones.

This moment of appreciation for the humble wired earbud (I still prefer the Apple version, which at $19 a pop come in at just over 10% of the cost of the third generation AirPods) comes courtesy of a peculiarly nasty dispatch from Politico about Kamala Harris’s preference for wired headphones over wireless ones.

“Kamala Harris is Bluetooth-phobic,” read the headline of the piece, which went on to report that Harris uses wired headphones with her mobile phone because she “felt” and “believes” that Bluetooth headphones are a security threat.

The piece cites an unnamed source who describes her aversion as “a bit paranoid” and questions whether “someone who travels with the nuclear football” should risk “spending time untangling her headphone wires”.

But it fails to cite a cybersecurity expert, who could have told its authors that Bluetooth’s security vulnerability is not so much a “feeling” as a “reality” and that “someone who travels with the nuclear football” has a slightly more complicated threat model than the average iPhone user. (None of the three reporters bylined on the piece responded to my query about whether they had consulted any security researchers.)

Bluetooth technology has been around since the late 1980s, and while its security has improved over the years, it remains vulnerable to “man in the middle attacks”, cybersecurity researcher and writer Kim Crawley told me. That means that an attacker could intercept and decrypt the signal between the phone and the Bluetooth device, allowing them to listen in to whatever audio is being transmitted.

“If Kamala Harris is using wired earbuds, then the communications going between her phone and her ears can’t be intercepted there,” said Crawley. “I would presume that Ms Harris is privy to a lot of top secret and classified information and that top secret and classified information could be going through her phone, so no I don’t think that’s overly paranoid.”

Bluetooth signals are encrypted, but just like a lock on a door, encryption is a “barrier”, not a guarantee, Crawley said. Locks, after all, can be broken.

Harris’s calls might still be vulnerable to interception at a different point (such as through the mobile phone network), but by eschewing wireless headphones, she is eliminating one possible “attack surface”, in cybersecurity lingo.

Using wired headphones is a pretty sensible precaution for a person with access to highly sensitive information

Considering that a Bluetooth signal can extend 100m from the device and that an attacker might just look like a random person playing with her phone, using wired headphones is a pretty sensible precaution for a person with access to highly sensitive information and reason to believe they might be the target of attacks.

This doesn’t mean that regular people have to abandon their AirPods, Crawley said. While some “high security computing environments” bar the use of any Bluetooth devices, including keyboards or computer mice, cybersecurity decisions should generally be tailored to your individual needs and vulnerabilities.

“If there’s a man-in-the-middle attack and the only result is the cyber-attacker knows we like listening to the Spice Girls, that’s not a big problem,” Crawley said.

My own aversion to AirPods is not the result of any high level threat modelling exercise (though the ever present anxiety of losing two exorbitantly expensive items does represent a threat to my sense of security). I just have a healthy skepticism of new products described as revolutionary by raging capitalists (something that served me well during my six years as a tech reporter) and a Boomerish aversion to many things new.

I’ve managed to maintain this stance for long enough that wired headphones have achieved a certain level of retro cool, according to the Wall Street Journal, which last month reported on the rash of “fashionable young celebrities” who have been spotted “strutting around town with blatantly corded headphones”.

This has provided me with what may just be the purest joy a single and childless 38-year-old woman can hope for in this life: the joy of being proven right.

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