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WikiLeaks' dump of CIA hacking tools is 'devastating' for the agency — but there may be an upside

March 09,2017 04:20

Cybersecurity experts who spoke to Business Insider broadly agreed that the CIA's hacking arsenal was not nearly as sophisticated as the National Security Agency's, and it's unclear how heavily the CIA as a whole depended on the tools developed by the ...



CIA Director Mike
Pompeo.
Jacquelyn
Martin/AP

WikiLeaks on Tuesday dumped thousands of documents that it said
detailed the hacking tools and techniques used by the CIA for
foreign espionage in what appears to be the largest leak of CIA
documents in history.

The documents, which experts widely believe to be authentic,
describe how the agency's Center for Cyber Intelligence develops
malware, viruses, Trojans, weaponized "zero day" exploits, and
other tools to hack devices like iPhones, Android phones, and
Samsung smart TVs.

Heather Fritz Horniak, a CIA spokesperson, told Business Insider
that the agency "does not comment on the authenticity or content
of purported intelligence documents."

Per the CIA's charter, its hacking arsenal can be deployed only
against foreign targets, not against US citizens. Officials have
emphasized that using the tools against overseas targets
constitutes legal intelligence collection, but WikiLeaks has said
it was given the documents by a former US government hacker or
contractor concerned about "whether the CIA's hacking
capabilities exceed its mandated powers."

WikiLeaks has not published the cyberweapons' codes, which would
detail how they are used operationally. But Tuesday's leak has
essentially rendered them useless and could set the CIA's
cyberintelligence teams back by "at least a year," said Alex
McGeorge, a senior security researcher at the cybersecurity firm
Immunity Inc.

"All of these tools and techniques are now burned," McGeorge
said, noting that the dump included extensive testing plans to
make sure the tools wouldn't backfire. "The CIA won't want to use
them again, and operations using those tools that may be running
at this moment will need to have the tools swapped out or
abandoned entirely."

Cybersecurity experts who spoke to Business Insider broadly
agreed that the CIA's hacking arsenal was not nearly as
sophisticated as the National Security Agency's, and it's unclear
how heavily the CIA as a whole depended on the tools developed by
the Center for Cyber Intelligence.

President
Donald Trump.
REUTERS/Carlos
Barria

But "the impact could be quite severe" if the tools were used
throughout the CIA, McGeorge said, and it would be "a tall order"
to redesign and redeploy them.

"For the CIA, this is [a] huge loss," Jake Williams, the founder
of the cybersecurity firm Rendition InfoSec,
told The Daily Beast. "For incident responders like me, this
is a treasure trove."

"This, from the CIA perspective, is devastating," Philip Mudd, a
former CIA counterterrorism official,
told CNN on Wednesday. "And there's got to be a manhunt in
that organization today to determine who did this."

Foreign intelligence agencies may now be aware of the CIA's tools
and what devices are at risk, which may force the agency to
"shift its activities," Jeff Bardin, the chief intelligence
officer at the cybersecurity firm Treadstone 71, told Business
Insider.

But the CIA is "always looking at how to modify and update" its
tools anyway, Bardin said, so it likely wouldn't take long for it
to discover new vulnerabilities and avenues of attack known as
"zero days."

"Based on what we've seen for years, there will always be zero
days," Bardin said. "This just forces them to innovate even
faster than before."

Christopher Mims, a technology columnist at The Wall Street
Journal, said on
Twitter that any damage done to the CIA's arsenal would
likely be temporary at best.

"Zero day exploits = renewable resource," he said.

The leak could have an upside if the CIA were able to reconfigure
its hacking tools quickly. The leaked technology may serve as a
deterrent for some US adversaries who are tempted to ramp up
their own offensive cyberoperations in the future, according to
Larry Johnson, a Secret Service veteran and chief strategy
officer at the cybersecurity firm CyberSponse.

"Technology is altered and improved so often that tools used by
the CIA today were likely not going to be relevant in the near
future anyway," Johnson told Business Insider. "But if the US's
adversaries didn't already know that the CIA was capable of
developing these sophisticated tools, well, they know it now."

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