The Timing, Source, and What's Missing: WikiLeaks' CIA Cyber Arsenal Dump Explained

How reliable is Vault 7, the information allegedly leaked from the Central Intelligence Agency? For starters, nothing stated by WikiLeaks or Assange should be taken at face value.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy, in central London, Britain February 5, 2016.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy, in central London, Britain February 5, 2016. PETER NICHOLLS/REUTERS

1. How reliable is it?

Serious questions have always existed regarding the motives and methods of the WikiLeaks organization and of its founder Julian Assange. These have intensified over the last months of the U.S. presidential campaign and in its aftermath, when it became clear that WikiLeaks was publishing material obtained by hackers with ties to Russian intelligence that were damaging to the Democratic Party and its candidate Hillary Clinton. As Donald Trump's adviser Roger Stone admitted only this week, he had a "perfectly legal back channel" to Assange during the campaign. All this means that nothing stated by the organization or Assange should be taken at face value.

However, from a very superficial examination of the 8,761 "Vault 7" documents released on Tuesday by WikiLeaks, purportedly confidential CIA documents describing a wide range of cyberwarfare methods and procedures, it is hard to believe that a package of this size and technical detail is fake. Also, it's important to note that while the provenance of WikiLeaks' previous dumps was questionable, the documents themselves have invariably turned out to be authentic. Hundreds of skilled software analysts are already poring over the "Vault 7" documents, but so far no one has found a reason to doubt that this is indeed authentic CIA material.

2. Assuming it's authentic, how damaging is this for the CIA?

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia, in 2008.
REUTERS FILE PHOTO/REUTERS

For any intelligence agency, secrecy of its intelligence-collecting methods is paramount. This is even more crucial in the field of cyber-intelligence, where computers, databases and other electronic systems are "hacked" with the intention of the breach remaining a secret for years. Anyone who has followed the news in recent years knows no electronic data is ever fully safe. However, the details on the huge range of methods developed by the CIA to access electronic devices and information in the "Vault 7" files will enable individuals, organizations and governments to fix vulnerabilities located by the agency's hackers. It will allow the companies that developed the vulnerable devices and software to release safer versions and it should not be ignored that it will also help the CIA's targets – governments hostile to the U.S. and terror organizations – evade detection and develop their own cyberweapons.

WikiLeaks claimed in its press release on Tuesday that the CIA had already lost control of this "arsenal" of cyberweapons and that it was being passed between independent hackers. If this is true, much of the damage has already been done but the WikiLeaks publication will greatly enhance it. The documents could also renew and enhance calls for greater civilian and legal oversight of electronic intelligence operations.

3. What or who is WikiLeaks' source?

In its press release, WikiLeaks claims that it received the files from one member of a group of "former U.S. government hackers and contractors" and that the source "wishes to initiate a public debate about the security, creation, use, proliferation and democratic control of cyberweapons." This may be true. The source could be another Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden. But it is equally possible that WikiLeaks was in some way used, as it seems to have been in the past, by intelligence agencies of governments interested in embarrassing the U.S. administration and damaging its intelligence operations. The Russians would certainly come to the top of the list of likely suspects in this regard. Russia's intelligence services would naturally have been trying to obtain this information. If they had harvested it, they would have a lot to gain by sowing confusion and distrust by leaking it through Assange.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, December 23, 2016.
Pavel Golovkin/AP

4. Is there anything new or surprising in the documents?

Before the documents have been seriously analyzed by software security specialists, it is hard to know how much is actually surprising in "Vault 7." After the previous Snowden leaks and other revelations, no one should be surprised that the CIA, just like every other major intelligence organization in the world, has developed multiple methods to hack and harvest data from various operating systems on computers, smartphones and even tablets. The effort put into hacking "smart televisions" and using them for data collection is a relatively new feature, though there was no doubt that as the internet of things becomes a daily reality and homes and offices fill with appliances that are controlled through an online network, these everyday objects would also become spying tools.
 
5. What is missing from the documents?

There are no names of either individuals or organizations mentioned in the documents. WikiLeaks claims to have made 70,875 redactions in the "Vault 7" files. This is an amazing number, which raises two related questions. First, Assange has always been against redactions, often quarrelling with news organizations that have partnered with WikiLeaks in the past over their insistence on protecting the identities of individuals. What made him change his policy? Also, by all accounts, including Assange's, WikiLeaks has limited resources and very few employees, certainly nowhere near enough to carry out 70,875 redactions – if that figure is even accurate. All this indicates that either the source (and in this case it wouldn't have been one former disgruntled government employee) or some other well-funded organization, probably an intelligence agency, have been working on these documents for quite some time.

WikiLeaks promises to publish more CIA files, but in the current "Vault 7" series there does not seem to be any lists of targets or information actually collected through the hundreds of cyber methods detailed therein. Does WikiLeaks – or its source – hold any of these? Will they be released soon, and if so, why the wait? Last month, WikiLeaks published a purported CIA document containing alleged orders to spy on all the parties competing in the French presidential election. Was it obtained using these hacking tools and will more come out shortly? The centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, who is running against pro-Russian candidates Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon, has accused the Russians of trying to hack his campaign. Is Assange helping the Russians deflect these accusations?

6. Why release the documents now?

WikiLeaks denies there is any motive behind the timing of "Vault 7," saying that they have done so as soon as they could verify the files' authenticity and carry out various redactions of personal information from the documents. Whatever the reason, it is impossible not to speculate whether the organization or its sources already had the documents in their hands during last year's U.S. election campaign and withheld them because WikiLeaks was busy trying to sabotage Clinton's campaign at the time and couldn't be distracted. Whether or not that was the case, it is interesting that the documents have come out now, in the beginning of Trump's presidency. Which leads to the next question:

7. How will this affect WikiLeaks' image?

In the early days of its operations, when WikiLeaks published damaging details and videos of American operations in Iraq, the organization was much beloved by the left wing. After it released hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Department cables in 2010, detailing what America's diplomats were really hearing and thinking about dictators around the world, WikiLeaks was even credited with playing a role in triggering the Arab Spring anti-dictatorship protests throughout the Middle East. In recent years, however, a string of scandals surrounding Assange (who is still holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, evading questioning over rape allegations in Sweden) and some of WikiLeaks' practices, including the way it has jeopardized vulnerable individuals by publishing their names and details, have greatly tarnished its image. It lost many (but not all) of its remaining supporters on the left and the right when it was seen to be in bed both with the Trump campaign and the Kremlin last year. The latest dump may have a double effect: It could ruin the organization's good relations with Trump supporters, who appreciated each leaked email that damaged the Democrats' campaign but will be much less appreciative of the harm to the CIA. At the same time, it could help WikiLeaks restore some of credit with those mainly on the left who fear the "surveillance state."

8. Was the White House fully aware of the CIA's hacking?

Following the publication of the National Security Agency documents stolen by former contractor Edward Snowden, who fled to Moscow, the Obama administration made various public commitments to increase oversight over the intelligence community's surveillance operations. One of these commitments was to share with American tech companies vulnerabilities that it found in their devices and software. WikiLeaks claims – and from a cursory examination of the "Vault 7" documents, they seem to have a case – that the CIA continued "hoarding" hundreds of these vulnerabilities, which could damage both the companies and the users of their products. Was this done without the White House's knowledge or were the commitments of the Obama administration not fully truthful? This could further erode confidence in American technology for users around the world. One senior executive in an Israeli cybertech company said recently that "part of the success of Israeli cybersecurity in recent years is due to fears around the world that American intelligence agencies have ways to hack into American software and even cybersecurity products."

9. How can I stop the CIA hacking in to my phone and computer?

If it wasn't clear to you by now, you can't. Basic precautions like not clicking on any suspicious (or innocent-looking) link can protect you from garden-variety phishing, but the sheer range of capabilities developed by the CIA and other major intelligence agencies in the U.S. and other countries can easily overwhelm everything but the most advanced cybersecurity software. Just hope that you're not a target and be aware that nothing you store or do on your electronic devices is ever truly private.