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Mar 13 2017
by Anna DiGiacomo

A College Student's Guide to Understanding WikiLeaks and the CIA Scandal

By Anna DiGiacomo - Mar 13 2017
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WikiLeaks once again made national headlines when the organization released thousands of documents regarding the CIA’s spying techniques this past Tuesday, March 7th.

Dubbed the “Vault 7” cache on its website, WikiLeaks released 8,761 pages of information which they claim contains proof that the CIA has been using special software tools to break into smartphones, computers and TVs. WikiLeaks further asserted that the CIA has been exploiting security flaws in popular products, such as iPhones and Samsung TVs, to spy on individuals.

Soon after the enormous cache was released, WikiLeaks published two tweets claiming that the CIA malware had infected iPhone and Android devices and was accessing private information by bypassing encrypted message apps. If true, this could pose a unique threat to journalists and others who require secure communication through apps such as “Signal."

In response to the accusations, the CIA released a statement on Wednesday in which they declined to comment on the documents, though they further stated the agency was “ "legally prohibited from conducting electronic surveillance targeting individuals here at home.”

The same day, the FBI opened an investigation regarding the security leak in the CIA. People with connections to these government documents and files were called in for interviews. Additionally, cyber-security experts and intelligence officers were called in to determine if the leak came from inside the CIA or from foreign hackers, though a decision has yet to be made.

What is WikiLeaks?

As an international, nonprofit organization, WikiLeaks uses anonymous sources to publish secret information usually in the form of news leaks. According to their website, WikiLeaks has published more than 10 million documents of censored information “involving war, spying and corruption."

The organization has been in operation since 2006 when founder Julian Assange moved to Iceland. An Australian journalist and computer programmer, Assange has been hiding in the Embassy of Ecuador in London since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden and the United States.

What did the leaks reveal?

Due to the highly technical nature of the leak, which consisted mostly of high-level computer code, it is difficult to know just what the leak contained. Thus, it is still under investigation by the Associated Press.

So far, cyber security experts are focusing on “zero-day vulnerabilities," or holes in software that outside parties can use to infiltrate a device and infect with malware, spyware or to simply access personal information. The WikiLeaks dump shows that the CIA has been aware of many of these vulnerabilities, though it has done nothing to fix them or alert the companies responsible. This has left many Americans open for potential cyber attacks and has drawn the criticism of organizations such as the ACLU.

By exploiting these weaknesses in code, “Vault 7” asserts that the CIA is capable of hacking into devices remotely. This would allow the agency to activate cameras and microphones to keep tabs on a person’s location and private messages. Furthermore, the dump offers an explanation of how the CIA coordinated with United Kingdom intelligence services to develop a program called “Weeping Angel." This program grants agencies the ability to hack into Samsung Smart TVs and record their surroundings even when the TV appears to be off.

Is the government spying on me?

In light of these disturbing revelations, many people are concerned that their devices may be hacked. In short, the answer is a shaky no. There is currently no evidence that these techniques have been used against Americans, and there is legislation in place that supposedly prevents agencies from hacking Americans.

However, guidelines passed under Obama’s presidency were supposed to ensure code vulnerabilities were disclosed to the tech companies in order to be fixed, but the CIA clearly did not do this.

Ultimately, the amount of concern a person should feel depends on that person’s trust in the government. After Snowden’s NSA leaks, it’s not surprising to learn that the government has the capability to spy on its citizens. However, unlike the NSA Leaks, note that there is no evidence in this case that the CIA has used this technology against Americans. Rather, these leaks merely draw attention to the issue of cyber security and the threat of government overreach.

Lead Image Credit: Televixen via Flickr Creative Commons


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Anna DiGiacomo - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Anna is a freshman Strategic Communications major at UNC Chapel Hill. She played varsity soccer in high school and besieged the student body with libertarianism. She now spends her time annoying her roommate, catching Bruce Springsteen concerts and getting lost while pretending to camp. Follow her on Instagram @digiacomoa

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