In what appears to be another major blow against a U.S. intelligence agency, whistleblower website WikiLeaks has publicly leaked 8,761 documents purportedly containing highly confidential information on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) global hacking capabilities and malware arsenal.
Among the leaked documents are those that allegedly describe numerous zero-day vulnerabilities targeting Android, iOS, and Windows systems, as well as exploits against network routers, smart TVs, and critical components in connected vehicles.
The documents that WikiLeaks has collectively titled Vault 7, were released Tuesday and allegedly come from a high-security network inside the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence facility in Langley, Va.
The data dump represents the largest-ever leak of confidential CIA information and contains several hundred million lines of attack code that the agency has developed over the years for breaking into and spying on adversary systems and networks. The data appears to have been circulating for some time among former government hackers and contractors, and was provided to WikiLeaks by one of them, the website said in a statement.
“This extraordinary collection … gives its possessor the entire hacking capacity of the CIA,” the site boasted.
Several specialized groups within the CIA were allegedly responsible for the collection of hacker tools and malware released in this week’s data dump, according to WikiLeaks.
A group within the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, called Engineering Development Group (EDG), for instance, was responsible for building and supporting the backdoors, malicious payloads, Trojans, and viruses that the CIA used globally for its covert operations. The group’s management system apparently contains details on around 500 projects involving tools for penetrating, infesting, data exfiltration, and command and control.
Another group dubbed the Embedded Devices Branch developed a tool capable of infesting smart TVs and turning them into covert listening devices even when the owners think the TV has been shut off. A Mobile Devices Branch developed attacks for breaking into Android, iOS and other smartphones, including methods for bypassing the encryption offered by services like WhatsApp, Signal, and other apps, the site claimed.
As part of its activities, the CIA also explored hacks of control systems in smart cars and trucks though the purpose of such efforts is not clear, WikiLeaks said.
The document dump has surfaced some familiar concerns pertaining to the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to protect their sensitive data against such massive leaks, especially in a post Edward Snowden era.
It has also stirred up concern about WikiLeaks’ motives behind such a leak and its responsibility for any misuse of the leaked data by criminals and opportunistic attackers.
“The size and scope does seem to suggest inside access,” says John Pescatore, director of emerging security threats at the SANS Institute. “That could be a malicious insider or it could simply be a compromised insider machine. But that is just my speculation,” he says.
Following Snowden's leaks in 2013, National Security Agency director Keith Alexander had suggested one way to mitigate insider risks was to reduce the number of system administrators by 90% and move more application and services to the cloud, Pescatore recalls. All that meant was that the 10% of remaining administrators likely had broader access, because they were fewer of them. “If you don’t improve the vetting and monitoring of privileged users, one going bad with broader access will cause more damage,” Pescatore says.
Brian Vecci, technical evangelist at Varonis, says that without more information it’s hard to say how WikiLeaks might have gotten its hands on the confidential data. A first read suggests the leak was the result of a well-coordinated effort that was likely designed to have maximum public impact.
“I’m personally surprised at the breadth and depth of what’s been revealed so far, because of just how big the implications are for both individual and organizational privacy,” Vecci says. “The detective and preventive controls put in place to protect this information were inadequate, full stop,” he says. “Either no one was monitoring the data, the access rights to that data or the activity against that data. Whether this was done accidentally or purposefully is a separate question.”
Edward McAndrew, the co-chair of the privacy and data security group at law firm Ballard Spahr says the leak exposes the continued inability of U.S. intelligence agencies to secure their most sensitive data, even after the lessons from Snowden’s leaks.
But “Wikileaks' persistent publication of stolen and highly confidential information raises the specter that it has become an aider and abettor of computer fraud that now impacts US national security,” says McAndrew, a former cybersecurity specialist at the U.S. Department of Justice.
What WikiLeaks has leaked could potentially be used to commit criminal acts against victims ranging from individuals to large corporations. "The release of intelligence-grade hacking tools into the wild of the Internet will significantly increase the cybersecurity risks for organizations of all types,” he says. “If there is a bright side, it may be that corporate information security departments also can – but now must – access and deploy defenses against these tools."
Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio