AMMONNEWS - WikiLeaks on Tuesday published thousands of pages of documents that claim to outline the CIA’s ability to hack everything from smartphones to smart TVs to messaging apps. The online report also details the agency’s alleged abilities to use a variety of computer viruses and malware.
The Union-Tribune discussed the claims made by WikiLeaks with Kevin O’Brien, chief executive officer of GreatHorn, a cybersecurity firm in Boston. Here are the answers to the questions we posed.
Q: The WikiLeaks documents say that the CIA, other intelligence agencies and their contractors have learned to hack Samsung “smart” TVs. Specifically, WikiLeaks says “the owner (of the TV) falsely believes the TV is off when it is on. In ‘Fake Off” mode the TV operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the Internet to a c overt CIA server.
Is this plausible?
A: If the CIA has access to the actual code running on the devices' chips themselves -- this is plausible. Simply turning off the screen but keeping the network and microphone active would not be difficult.
Q: WikiLeaks also claims that, “As of October 2014 the CIA was also looking at infecting the vehicle control systems used by modern cars and trucks. The purpose of such control is not specified, but it would permit the CIA to engage in nearly undetectable assassinations.”
What do you make of this? Hackers and university researchers have already proven that they can take control of various systems in cars and trucks.
A: Ethics aside, remote control over drive-by-wire cars is plausible. If I was concerned about being assassinated by the CIA, however, I'd probably drive a "dumb" car, so the explanation of a potential use scenario seems like a stretch.
Q: WikiLeaks says the CIA “developed numerous attacks to remotely hack and control popular smart phones. Infected phones can be instructed to send the CIA the user’s geolocation, audio and text communications as well as covertly activate the phone’s camera and microphones.”
Does this kind of hacking sound plausible?
A: Trivial. Root access to a phone means having full access to all of its capabilities.
Q: WikiLeaks further says that that the CIA “produces malware to infest, control and exfiltrate data from iPhones and other Apple products running iOS, such as iPads.” WikiLeaks added that similar things were being done to Android phones
From a technological standpoint, does that sound doable?
A: Again, yes -- although malware (as opposed to firmware-level compromises) are more likely to be detected and/or removed.
Q: WikiLeaks says CIA has found ways to “bypass the encryption of WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Weibo, Confide and Cloakman by hacking the “smart” phones that they run on and collecting audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.
Again, from a technological standpoint, does this sound plausible?
A: Plausible, but it would be interesting to see how these applications have implemented their encryption and where the backdoor exists. If this happens at the input level (e.g., by simply key-sniffing the device), this would render outbound message encryption fairly useless, and if the device was compromised at a more foundational level, the entire display-level text of these apps could be intercepted.