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News & Commentary

3/8/2017
04:30 AM
Curtis Franklin
Curtis Franklin
Curt Franklin
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WikiLeaks Strikes Again

WikiLeaks has release thousands of pages allegedly from CIA's Center for Cyber Intelligence. Just how bad is it?

WikiLeaks has done it again.

The cybersecurity world and much of the world that orbits around cybersecurity is working overtime to understand just how worried everyone should be about the news that the CIA developed advanced tools for hacking into mobile devices and messaging apps -- and now information on those tools, and the tools themselves, are in the wild.

So what has changed in the last 24 hours? The world is now aware of 7,818 web pages with 943 attachments from the CIA Center for Cyber Intelligence. And we're told that there is more, totaling "…several hundred million lines of code…", according to WikiLeaks, that may ultimately be revealed. The word "may" is important, because WikiLeaks has decided, for now, to redact many names of both CIA assets and targets, and to withhold the actual code until, "…a consensus emerges on the technical and political nature of the CIA's program and how such 'weapons' should analyzed, disarmed and published."

In a March 7 press release announcing the public disclosure, WikiLeaks wrote, "By the end of 2016, the CIA's hacking division, which formally falls under the agency's Center for Cyber Intelligence (CCI), had over 5000 registered users and had produced more than a thousand hacking systems, trojans, viruses, and other 'weaponized' malware. Such is the scale of the CIA's undertaking that by 2016, its hackers had utilized more code than that used to run Facebook."

It's not news to note that the US government has developed a substantial code base of applications to use for spying through and disabling computer systems. In August of 2016, The Shadow Brokers, a hacker or group of hackers, auctioned software that it claimed had originated in a state-sponsored hacking group affiliated with the NSA. At that time, WikiLeaks claimed that it also had clean copies of the software that it would release, though no release has yet occurred.

What's new?
The information that has gotten the most attention regards "zero day" exploits that allow access to services like WhatsApp and Telegram before the encryption stage. That means users who assume that encryption is protecting their communication would instead be allowing "in the clear" access to their conversations.

Next up is the extent to which the tools seem to concentrate on devices in addition to computers. iOS, in particular, is the target of many documents, though Android is not ignored. In addition, non-computing devices like Samsung smart TVs are targeted so that the in-set camera and microphone can be used, even when the set is turned off, to spy on those in the room with the set.

What's the problem?
At first glance, there seems to be little truly earth-shaking in the WikiLeaks data dump. Few people would be surprised that the CIA was involved in writing applications to spy on computers and smartphones, that the agency was collecting exploits and malware developed by other groups, or that all of the above applications were in use. No, the surprise is that the collection of software is now available outside the agency in what could be the greatest "one stop shop" ever made available to hackers.

In past centuries, when an army retreated or abandoned an area, any guns left behind would be "spiked" so that they could not be turned around and used on their original owners. The kind of tools described by the WikiLeaks documents can't be spiked: Once in the hands of a hacker, they can be used against any target. And while WikiLeaks may be, for the moment, showing discretion in holding back the code itself, many CISOs will not assume that everyone coming into contact with the code will demonstrate the same restraint.

The CIA has not commented on the contents of the WikiLeaks documents, so there is no official word on their authenticity. While this writer has gone through some of the material, we cannot independently vouch for their authenticity. What can be confidently stated, though, is that the release of documents such as these are strong reminders that basic security measures, from keeping systems properly updated and patched, to slapping a sticky note over the webcam's lens, should not be ignored in the ongoing and escalating war against private enterprise data.

— Curtis Franklin, Security Editor, Light Reading

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