WikiLeaks this week unveiled what it has called its largest collection of internal CIA communications about hacking techniques the agency uses to access some of the most widely used commercial electronic devices including Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows.
The trove of documents, code-named Vault 7, includes more than 8,700 documents from 2013 to 2016, and is the first in a series WikiLeaks says it intends to publish.
In a statement WikiLeaks says the “Year Zero” documents reveal the scope and direction of the CIA’s hacking capabilities which, through weaponised exploits, can also turn smart televisions like Samsung TVs into covert microphones.
The “Year Zero” documents eclipse in size the total number of pages published by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange said the published documents show the extent to which cyber “weapons” have proliferated in recent years.
“There is an extreme proliferation risk in the development of cyber ‘weapons’. Comparisons can be drawn between the uncontrolled proliferation of such ‘weapons’, which results from the inability to contain them combined with their high market value, and the global arms trade,” Assange said. “But the significance of “Year Zero” goes well beyond the choice between cyberwar and cyberpeace. The disclosure is also exceptional from a political, legal and forensic perspective.”
The publication of the documents comes as WikiLeaks claims the CIA had recently lost control of its entire arsenal of unclassified cyber weapons – viruses, malware, trojans and other exploits – of which more than a million lines of code were shared among US government hackers in an unauthorised manner.
The circulated code, a portion of which was shared with Assange’s anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, would supposedly give its possessor the “entire hacking capacity of the CIA.”
The source of the data leak, whose identity WikiLeaks is protecting, says public debate on CIA methods is “urgently” needed, including whether they exceed the agency’s mandate.
The leak’s revelation, a potential embarrassment to the CIA and “one of the most astounding intelligence own goals in living memory”, prompts questions as to how the agency manages its cyber capabilities.
“Once a single cyber ‘weapon’ is ‘loose’ it can spread around the world in seconds, to be used by rival states, cyber mafia and teenage hackers alike,” WikiLeaks said.
The CIA’s Engineering Development Group (EDG), within the agency’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, develops and tests all of the hacking tools available to hack into electronic systems.
It is the EDG which developed malware capable of accessing iPhones, Android and other devices including smart TVs.
According to Wikileaks, the EDG developed Weeping Angel which, with the help from MI5 in the UK, infests commercial electronics and pretends they’re switched off when in fact they’re not.
In Orwellian fashion and without the owner’s realisation, devices can then record conversations, capture images through camera functions, record locations, collect sent messages and send the data back to the CIA via the internet.
Another program, under development since 2014, has looked at the possibility of infecting electric control systems found in cars and trucks.
The purpose is not specified, but WikiLeaks says it would “permit the CIA to engage in nearly undetectable assassinations.”
Collection Before Encryption
CIA malware used to hack into mobile devices including phones also has the ability to bypass encryption software used by popular instant messaging applications.
Cyber exploits of applications including WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Wiebo, Confide and Cloackman, says WikiLeaks, are capable of collecting audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.
Windows, OSx, Linux
The CIA has also managed a concerted effort to run continuous hacking programs on Microsoft users.
The Hammer Drill program, for example, is a weaponised virus distributed through purposefully contaminated CDs and DVDs.
The Vault 7 documents show the CIA also uses portable USB storage devices and hides data in images to infect electronics.
While CIA headquarters are located in Langley, Virginia, the US embassy in Frankfurt Germany, Vault 7 documents show, is used as a covert base for CIA cyber attacks.
Using diplomatic passports and given US State Department clearances to pass through German immigration, hackers can then freely attack European targets thanks to the European Union’s Shengen open borders.
According to documents, a CIA attack system called Fine Dining can mask its attack by appearing as a computer game, a video player or even a fake virus scan.
WikiLeaks’ document dump claims the CIA also deliberately hoarded electronic vulnerabilities from the public, including US technology companies and manufactures, despite a previous commitment to disclose identified weaknesses.
It’s claimed they were not disclosed so that the CIA could continue exploiting them for their cyber surveillance programs.
“Serious vulnerabilities not disclosed to the manufacturers places huge swathes of the population and critical infrastructure at risk to foreign intelligence or cyber criminals who independently discover or hear rumours of the vulnerability,” WikiLeaks said. “If the CIA can discover such vulnerabilities, so can others.”
Although WikiLeaks published information pertaining to the CIA’s hacking abilities, it has not revealed the actual computer source codes needed to orchestrate CIA cyber attacks.
“This is a big dump about extremely sophisticated tools that can be used to target individual user devices … I haven’t yet come across the mass exploiting of mobile devices,” said Tarah Wheeler, senior director of engineering and principal security advocate for Symantec, speaking to Reuters.