The WikiLeaks document dump on the CIA’s hacking division appears to be far more damaging to U.S. spying abroad than threatening to average Americans at home.
This is not the outrageous domestic mass surveillance by the National Security Agency revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013, which was rightly curtailed by President Barack Obama and Congress in 2015. The CIA is not allowed to operate within the U.S., and the FBI would have to get legal authorization to use these hacking tools against U.S. citizens.
Still, it would be worth a congressional inquiry to make certain the CIA isn’t overstepping its mandate. In fact, it would be a far better way to spend our representatives’ time than looking into trumped-up accusations that Obama authorized a wiretap of Trump Tower.
It’s no secret the CIA gathers intelligence through many means. But this enormous leak of its files in history – nearly 9,000 documents from 2013 to 2016 – suggests the agency has amassed more than 1,000 viruses and other hacking tools to get into smartphones, messaging apps and even smart TVs. It apparently can collect text and voice messages before they are encrypted.
That said, we hope the CIA has been using these tools (and others) in its efforts to keep us safe against regimes in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere. That’s what spies are supposed to do. Anyone who has read books about cyber warfare knows developing network hacks is a major endeavor of every nation. Private individuals and companies pry open supposedly locked systems, then sell their secrets. Some, those with principles, mainly sell to the companies they’ve compromised or security agencies. Others sell to the highest bidders.
Our government has been buying these secrets – and developing their own – for years. That some have been divulged by WikiLeaks is theft and it’s dangerous.
It’s no secret that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a fan of Russia and Vladimir Putin. The Federalist called him a “front man, not a freedom fighter” in its September, 2016 issue. No one thinks it’s a coincidence that his group never divulges embarrassing information about Russia, only the United States.
Still, the WikiLeaks release is disturbing. It asserts the CIA purposely didn’t warn Apple, Google, Microsoft and other companies about vulnerabilities in their products, undercutting a pledge by Obama. While Apple said its latest iPhone operating software patched many of the flaws identified in the leak, Silicon Valley tech companies are scrambling to fix any remaining cracks and reassure customers.
The CIA needs to do its own reassurance – that it has control of its hacking arsenal and that it is adequately vetting employees and contractors with access to highly classified material. A federal investigation is being launched to find the source of the leak.
Given the history of WikiLeaks releasing embarrassing Democratic emails during the campaign, the timing of this leak could perhaps explain President Trump’s reticence to criticize WikiLeaks. The president has warred with the CIA, which says Russian agents gave those emails to WikiLeaks to help him win the election.
Trump partisans are already using the leak to attack the agency, focusing on one section that says the CIA can impersonate Russian hackers.
Whatever the fallout from this massive leak, it should be another red flag: In the digital age, you have to work and live as if your electronic trail might be seen by someone else.
As FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday, “There is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.” Or anywhere.