Among the revelations from a new WikiLeaks release was the disclosure of TVs being used to eavesdrop. According to the disclosure, the CIA has developed a technique, named “Weeping Angel,” that uses Samsung “smart” televisions as secret listening devices. The WikiLeaks news release explains that even when the TV set appears to be turned off, it “operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the internet to a covert CIA server.”
WikiLeaks said that the technology was developed in cooperation with British intelligence. In an earlier column, I described how Vizio TVs were accumulating and selling information to advertisers. But this takes it to a much more serious level with government agencies spying and eavesdropping on our private conversations.
Could Samsung have been aware of this? In the terms of service for its smart TVs, it notes that television sets could capture background conversations and that they could be passed on to third parties. Also included is a further warning: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.”
The WikiLeaks documents, if they are authentic, also describe how the CIA developed the tools to use our computers, smartphones, and apps to eavesdrop. The apps included WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram, and involved collecting “audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.”
It describes how the CIA was able to break into both Apple and Android phones. This CIA hacking initiative had a “mobile devices branch,” which was able to create the procedures for attacking smartphones to access data, determine a user’s location, extract audio and text messages, and to activate a phone’s camera and microphone.
This release from WikiLeaks consisted of 7818 web pages and 943 attachments, part of several hundred million lines of code that WikiLeaks claims to have in their possession. They said that these documents, codenamed “Vault 7,” were obtained from a contractor or other U.S. worker in an unauthorized manner.
WikiLeaks is the same organization that stole private correspondence from Democratic campaign staffs during the recent election campaign. In this release, they are urging that there be a public debate as to whether the CIA’s hacking capabilities exceed its mandated powers and about the problem of public oversight of the agency. They wish “to initiate a public debate about the security, creation, use, proliferation and democratic control of cyberweapons.”
The information released from the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence dates back to 2013 to 2016. CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said, “We do not comment on the authenticity or content of purported intelligence documents.” But other security experts appear to confirm the accuracy of some of the project names in the report.
Proton Technologies AG, a well-regarded security company that created ProtonMail, a secure email service with built-in end-to-end encryption and state-of-the-art security features, offered some insight into what this all means.
It’s clear from the leaked CIA documents that as the world has changed, stated-backed cyber-attackers have also evolved. The leaked files are tied together by a common thread – an almost singular focus on producing malware to attack end-user devices.
This is a logical response to the rise of end-to-end encrypted services such as ProtonMail. Services such as ProtonMail have significantly raised the barrier for obtaining data directly from the service provider, and many services are now based outside of the United States, beyond the reach of legal coercion. As such, it has now become easier, and more productive to directly hack individual users.
This opens up a terrifying new narrative where government spies are actively deploying viruses and trojans against their own citizens, joining the ranks of common cybercriminals.