The latest release from WikiLeaks details how the CIA uses different tools – from phones, to televisions and cars – to spy on us. The US government has amassed extraordinary hacking powers largely in secret – and this leak might just force us to figure out whether or not we are comfortable with that.
We now know that that the CIA has ways of hacking popular smartphones like iPhone and Android devices and that the agency is allowing hackers to take control of Internet connected televisions and covertly listen in on conversations in people’s living rooms.
This is not the first time we have heard about these kinds of practices. Many privacy advocates have been calling attention to this for years.
There was never any doubt that the US and other governments around the world would quickly move to exploit these features that are now all but standard in most household items. The only thing that we don’t know is how often governments have exploited this type of technology.
This is all quite scary, I know, but there’s some good news in the WikiLeaks documents as well. Early reports suggested that the CIA can “defeat” popular end-to-end encrypted messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp, but the WikiLeaks release is evidence that encryption does work to protect people’s privacy.
The documents show that the CIA has a host of exploits to attack the operating systems of popular mobile devices like iPhones and Androids, but to “defeat” secure messaging apps, government hackers have to gain access to your phone before they can read your messages.
So if you’re using an app like Signal, the contents of those communications are protected from their broad surveillance nets, which capture billions of text messages and emails daily.
The number of smartphone vulnerabilities and exploits detailed in these documents was shocking even to experts. Edward Snowden tweeted: “Why is this dangerous? Because until closed, any hacker can use the security hole the CIA left open to break into any iPhone in the world.” He called it “reckless beyond words.”
Civil society groups have been calling on US intelligence agencies to disclose these vulnerabilities to tech companies instead of hoarding them in secret. Intelligence agencies should help make the everyday devices we rely on safer, not less secure.
This latest WikiLeaks release will hopefully fuel a much-needed public debate regarding the hacking powers our government has at its disposal.
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