Wikileaks’ CIA document dump will cause a ripple effect

Revelations about CIA’s extensive hacking arsenal may push governments around the world to pursue similar exploits.

Wikileaks publishes CIA cyber intelligence documents
With the CIA hacking tools, black sites, the NSA's mass surveillance programme, the US can no longer tout itself as an exceptional democracy, writes Saleem [Reuters]

In 2015, soon after the San Bernardino attack, the FBI demanded that Apple help them access the attacker Syed Farook’s iPhone. FBI officers claimed the phone could have vital information and that Apple’s compliance was necessary in the interest of national security and sought a court order to compel the company.

At that time Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, called the order chilling and said that helping to access Farook’s phone would require writing a special code that would be “a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks”.

The FBI argued that it doesn’t need the key to access phones but that Apple needed to create a way for security agencies to gain access in criminal cases. The argument that such a “master key” would never be leaked sounded dubious then and it’s blatantly implausible after the events of this week.

No device is ‘secure’

The alleged trove of CIA documents revealed earlier this week by Wikileaks appears to be the largest leak of the agency’s documents in history.

The documents published online reveal a set of sophisticated tools and techniques from the CIA’s arsenal detailing how the agency can break into smartphones, computers and smart televisions.

The tools also include information on how the agency can compromise PDF documents, WiFi routers and even anti-virus softwares that are meant to protect individuals from intrusion.

One program codenamed Weeping Angel turns Samsung Smart TVs into covert listening devices even when they are switched off.

This means that the Smart TV can collect sound data from the room and transmit it over the internet to an agency server.

This is not all. The documents also contain a detailed library of cyberattack techniques borrowed from other countries such as Russia. One file titled Marble Framework reveals how the agency allegedly wrote a malware code to obscure its origin and confuse forensic experts.

OPINION: Will Putin expend Snowden for Trump?

This insight is the first of its kind that reveals that the CIA (apart from the NSA) has extensive hacking tools at its disposal.

Perhaps the two biggest revelations are that the CIA can hack into phones which allow them to directly access content before encryption is applied.

If a device is hacked the hacker can remotely access the device the same way as the user. The hacker is then able to monitor all live activity on the device that provides access to even draft messages or emails that haven’t been shared online or with another user.

While encryption helps protect users from prying eyes, hacking of a device makes it redundant since the hackers no longer have to intercept communication. Instead they can see the information in real time as if they physically possess the device itself.

Anyone can hack

Moreover, the agency worked on and paid to make products more vulnerable to hacking and then intentionally kept the loopholes open, making them prone to hacking by anyone.

If anything, these revelations show that the recent surge in encrypted tools such as Signal has pushed the United States government from massive surveillance to expensive targeted exploits.

What’s even more shocking is that the claims made by Wikileaks that the documents were “circulated among former US government hackers and contractors in an unauthorised manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive”.

If true, this means that individuals outside the agency now have the tools to compromise, exploit and hack into millions of devices around the world.

The US government has spent decades posing as the world's human rights defenders, and it shouldn't be oblivious to the ripple effect its draconian policies will have around the world.


Regardless of whether this claim is true, the documents did allegedly end up with Wikileaks, which shows the agency has serious operational security problems.

Unlike the revelations from Edward Snowden, the documents don’t contain examples of where these hacking tools are deployed. We do not yet know how and where the CIA uses its hacking arsenal.

But one thing is abundantly clear: there’s a need for an urgent debate on whether the CIA exceeded its mandated powers by developing these tools.

Similar to the reactions after the NSA revelations, the US government and agencies only seem to be concerned about whether these tools have been used against US citizens.

Greed for more control

At a time when “American exceptionalism” has come under question even within the US, government and its agencies should not be allowed to get away with exploiting millions of devices around the world.

These exploits not only target devices used by civilians, but they might potentially compromise information about military personnel, diplomats and politicians around the world. They reveal US agencies’ bullying tactics and unsatiated greed for more control.

The US government has spent decades posing as the world’s human rights defenders, and it shouldn’t be oblivious to the ripple effect its draconian policies will have around the world.

OPINION: Commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence is not enough

Agencies around the world clamoured to gain the same kind of access as the NSA in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations. The CIA documents will only push governments around the world to encourage their agencies to explore similar exploits.

With the CIA hacking tools, black sites, the NSA’s mass surveillance programme and a recklessly unpredictable commander-in-chief, the US can no longer tout itself as an exceptional democracy.

If anything these tools make Donald Trump potentially much more dangerous than the draconian dictators we’ve all been wary of.

Sana Saleem is a writer for 48hills and Global Voices. She is a member of the advisory board for the Courage Foundation and cofounder of Bolo Bhi.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.