Wikileaks and the CIA’s hacking arsenal

Julian Sanchez writes: It’s a cliche of political scandals that “the coverup is worse than the crime”: Attempts to conceal misconduct, because they’re easier to prove and provide otherwise elusive evidence of a guilty mind, often end up being more politically damaging than the underlying misconduct would have been. In the case of the latest Wikileaks document dump, the first in a planned series from a cache the site has dubbed “Vault 7,” we have an apparent reversal of the formula: The un-coverup—the fact of the leak itself—is probably more significant than the substance of what has thus far been revealed.

There are, of course, some points of real interest in the archive of documents, mostly concerning an array of hacking tools and software exploits developed or used by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Engineering Development Group — and it’s likely more will emerge as reporters and analysts churn through more than 8,000 files and documents. We’ve confirmed that the CIA has hung onto and exploited at least a handful of undisclosed “zero day” vulnerabilities in widely-used software platforms, including Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, the operating systems on which nearly all modern smartphones run.

We also learn that — as many of us expected — the obstacles to conventional wiretapping posed by the growing prevalence of encryption have spurred intelligence agencies to hunt for alternative means of collection, which include not only compromising communications endpoints such as smartphones, but also seeking to repurpose networked appliances on the Internet of Things as surveillance devices. The latter goal has even spawned its own research department, the Embedded Development Branch.

Still, in light of what we already knew about the National Security Agency’s own efforts along similar lines, thanks to Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the agency’s Tailored Access Operations division, this is—at least from a policy perspective—not so much revelation as confirmation. Moreover, there’s little here to suggest surveillance that’s either aimed at Americans or indiscriminate, the features that made Snowden’s leaks about NSA surveillance so politically explosive. One of the more widely-reported projects in Vault 7, for instance, has been the Doctor Who — referencingWeeping Angel” implant, which can turn Samsung televisions into surveillance microphones even when they appear to be turned off. Yet, at least at the time the documentation in the Wikileaks release was written, Weeping Angel appeared to require physical access to be installed—which makes it essentially a fancy and less detectable method of bugging a particular room once a CIA agent has managed to get inside. This is all fascinating to surveillance nerds, to be sure, but without evidence that these tools have been deployed either against inappropriate targets or on a mass scale, it’s not intrinsically all that controversial. Finding clever ways to spy on people is what spy agencies are supposed to do. [Continue reading…]

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