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NY Times Op-Ed, Mar. 10 2017
The Truth About the WikiLeaks C.I.A. Cache
by Zeynep Tufekci
On Tuesday morning, WikiLeaks released an enormous cache of documents
that it claimed detailed “C.I.A. hacking tools.” Immediately afterward,
it posted two startling tweets asserting that “C.I.A. hacker malware”
posed a threat to journalists and others who require secure
communication by infecting iPhone and Android devices and “bypassing”
encrypted message apps such as Signal and WhatsApp.
This appeared to be a bombshell. Signal is considered the gold standard
for secure communication. WhatsApp has a billion users. The C.I.A., it
seemed, had the capacity to conduct sweeping surveillance on what we had
previously assumed were our safest and most private digital conversations.
In their haste to post articles about the release, almost all the
leading news organizations took the WikiLeaks tweets at face value.
Their initial accounts mentioned Signal, WhatsApp and other encrypted
apps by name, and described them as “bypassed” or otherwise compromised
by the C.I.A.’s cyberspying tools.
Yet on closer inspection, this turned out to be misleading. Neither
Signal nor WhatsApp, for example, appears by name in any of the alleged
C.I.A. files in the cache. (Using automated tools to search the whole
database, as security researchers subsequently did, turned up no hits.)
More important, the hacking methods described in the documents do not,
in fact, include the ability to bypass such encrypted apps — at least
not in the sense of “bypass” that had seemed so alarming. Indeed, if
anything, the C.I.A. documents in the cache confirm the strength of
What had gone wrong? There were two culprits: an honest (if careless)
misunderstanding about technology on the part of the press; and yet
another shrewd misinformation campaign orchestrated by WikiLeaks.
Let’s start with the technology. In the aftermath of Edward J. Snowden’s
revelations about potential mass surveillance, there has been a sharp
increase in the use of these “end to end” encryption apps, which render
even the company that owns the app or phone essentially unable to read
or hear the communications between the two “end” users.
Given that entities like Signal and WhatsApp cannot get access to the
content of these conversations, even in response to a warrant — WhatsApp
keeps logs of who talked to whom, Signal doesn’t do even that —
intelligence agencies have been looking to develop techniques for
hacking into individual phones. That way, they could see the encrypted
communications just as individual users of the apps would.
These techniques are what the leaked cache revealed. Security experts I
spoke with, however, stressed that these techniques appear to be mostly
known methods — some of them learned from academic and other open
conferences — and that there were no big surprises or unexpected wizardry.
In other words, the cache reminds us that if your phone is hacked, the
Signal or WhatsApp messages on it are not secure. This should not come
as a surprise. If an intelligence agency, or a nosy sibling, can get you
to install, say, a “key logger” on your phone, either one can bypass the
encrypted communication app. But so can someone looking over your
shoulder while you use your phone. That is about the vulnerability of
your device. It has nothing to do with the security of the apps.
If anything in the WikiLeaks revelations is a bombshell, it is just how
strong these encrypted apps appear to be. Since it doesn’t have a means
of easy mass surveillance of such apps, the C.I.A. seems to have had to
turn its attention to the harder and often high-risk task of breaking
into individual devices one by one.
Which brings us to WikiLeaks’ misinformation campaign. An accurate tweet
accompanying the cache would have said something like, “If the C.I.A.
goes after your specific phone and hacks it, the agency can look at its
content.” But that, of course, wouldn’t have caused alarm and defeatism
about the prospects of secure conversations.
We’ve seen WikiLeaks do this before. Last July, right after the
attempted coup in Turkey, WikiLeaks promised, with much fanfare, to
release emails belonging to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development
Party. What WikiLeaks ultimately released, however, was nothing but
mundane mailing lists of tens of thousands of ordinary people who
discussed politics online. Back then, too, the ruse worked: Many Western
journalists had hyped these non-leaks.
WikiLeaks seems to have a playbook for its disinformation campaigns. The
first step is to dump many documents at once — rather than allowing
journalists to scrutinize them and absorb their significance before
publication. The second step is to sensationalize the material with
misleading news releases and tweets. The third step is to sit back and
watch as the news media unwittingly promotes the WikiLeaks agenda under
the auspices of independent reporting.
The media, to its credit, eventually sorts things out — as it has
belatedly started to do with the supposed C.I.A. cache. But by then, the
initial burst of misinformation has spread. On social media in
particular, the spin and distortion continues unabated. This time
around, for example, there are widespread claims on social media that
these leaked documents show that it was the C.I.A. that hacked the
Democratic National Committee, and that it framed Russia for the hack.
(The documents in the cache reveal nothing of the sort.)
As with most misinformation campaigns, the dust that is kicked up
obscures concerns over a real issue. Device and information insecurity,
overzealous surveillance by governments — these are real concerns that
call for real attention. Yes, we need to have extensive and thoughtful
discussion of these topics. But that’s not what the WikiLeaks
misinformation campaign has given us.
Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the School of Information and
Library Science at the University of North Carolina, is the author of
the forthcoming “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of
Networked Protest” and a contributing opinion writer.
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