08 Mar 2017, 37 mins ago

In a major embarrassment for the intelligence agencies, Wikileaks has released a huge cache of confidential information apparently revealing the true extent of the CIA and other western intelligence agencies’ abilities to hack computers, mobile phones and even so-called smart TVs.

After months of focus on the hacking capabilities of Russia, the leak brings the CIA’s own activities into sharp focus. Whilst intelligence agencies refused to comment on the leak, many security experts expressed the fear that such a leak will damage the intelligence agencies’ capabilities as these vulnerabilities are brought into the public domain. Wikileaks defended the publication of the material and claimed that its source had shared the files in order to prompt a debate into whether the CIA’s hacking capabilities had exceeded its mandated powers.

It will take time for security experts to trawl the material that has been published but, even now, possibly alarming details have emerged of the hacking capabilities of these intelligence agencies. Weaknesses in both Android and Apple operating systems can be exploited to provide access to a target’s phone – even using its microphone as a mobile listening device. Several popular instant messaging services, which were previously thought to be secure, have been compromised and, in a headline grabbing revelation, we learned that intelligence agencies have found a way to secretly activate the microphone in smart televisions to covertly listen to a target’s conversations.

These techniques enable the CIA to bypass the encryption of applications such as WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Weibo, Confide and Cloakman by hacking the ‘smart’ phones that they are installed on and allow them to collect audio and message traffic before encryption is applied. Your home can be monitored through televisions, iPad and computers, regardless of whether they are turned on or off.

The debate as to the rights and wrongs of such intrusive forms of surveillance will no doubt rage for weeks to come, but many will see this leak as simply confirming what they already knew. As technology marches onwards there is a constant battle being waged by the security services and their political masters to gain access to the huge mass of data that exists online, in our smart phones and in our homes. So-called secure systems have been exposed as being hopelessly compromised, and ones critical views of the news and television programs, as well as nocturnal activities (if you have a TV in your bedroom or keep your mobile, iPad or laptop within easy reach) are now potentially available to all and sundry. It’s the ultimate reality TV show. 

Anyone who values their privacy, whether or not they are engaged in sensitive work such as confidential corporate and/or banking matters or litigation, etc, will need to think very carefully about how they protect their information and how they communicate it securely.

As for your private life in your own home, perhaps one should consider whether the smart TV, iPad and computer, together with Amazon Echo and Google Home etc, should be disposed of, or simply accept that all domestic activities will be kept on record somewhere, to be viewed or used at will by unknown and largely unaccountable individuals or organisations.

The fact that the leak occurred means that all your private data is not safe and can be accessed and used by those outside the intelligence community for all sorts of purposes.

Whatever one’s views, it is clear that the vast majority of the electronic devices we all carry on a day-to-day basis, as well as our domestic TVs and computers, are extremely vulnerable to attack and cannot be trusted.