For me, the most shocking revelations to come out of Wikileaks’ release of classified CIA documents relating to the agency’s spying activities has been how the alleged vector of attack has changed to targeting consumer electronic devices.
Whether it is iPhones, Android devices or Samsung Smart TVs, the spy agency has clearly seen the opportunities provided by the often paper-thin security of many of today’s IoT-connected, smart gadgets.
Whereas in the cold war era, agents would, we are told, sneak into hotel rooms and offices undercover, in order to plant bugs and monitoring devices, today there is no need. The connected world offers them ready-built conduits into our homes and vehicles. And judging by the arsenal of hacking tools the CIA has been revealed to have at its disposal, manufacturers’ attempts to secure our privacy have been at best incompetent, and at worst, collaborative.
Of course, the documents, so far, do not go into a great deal of depth about how widely these intrusive technologies have been deployed. In other words, we know what they can do, but very little about what they have actually done.
The best case scenario is that these tools all represent technology that has been deployed legally – that is, used when security services have, through the correct channels, established there is a situation which requires them to take action to protect the public.
But the potential implications go far wider. These tools haven’t all been developed by the CIA themselves – in fact a substantial portion of the leaked information relates to a catalog of software and utilities that have been “collected”. No-one knows who they have been collected from. But what it does show is that the CIA has been aware for some time that the devices we are increasingly filling our homes with are not safe. And rather than act to help manufacturers and software developers shore up those vulnerabilities, they researched how they could best be exploited.
It’s scary, because there is certainly a lack of understanding about how thoroughly sensors, scanners and cameras cover our lives, and just how powerful, in theory (and it seems practice) their potential for surveillance is.
The problem might be that it’s simply too big a concern for most people to worry about – we know we aren’t going to sacrifice our smartphones and Internet-enabled TVs, and in coming years we’re probably be buying swarms of autonomous cars and IoT home entertainment and utility devices. Most of us probably rely on the fact that there’s nothing in particular of interest about us for someone to want to spy on us in the first place.
But this complacency – though understandable – is based on the flawed assumption that whoever has this power – be it the CIA, partner agencies they work with, or anyone who has got access to the same tools – will always be working in our best interests. History tells us that this will far from always be the case, and the CIA actions at the base of the recent revelations again make that point.
Thanks to Snowden of course, we’ve known for years that intelligence services are engaged in mass-surveillance of the public. These leaks show just how far reaching their capabilities have become, when it comes to extracting data about our lives. And when you consider how this data could be used, together with cutting edge analytics and machine learning – , it goes beyond even what George Orwell imagined in 1984. At least his hidden cameras had to be monitored by humans to determine who should be accused of facecrime or thoughtcrime.
Some have sought to downplay the implications of the leaks – suggesting that it has long been known that security services are capable of accessing personal devices and turning them into surveillance tools. This is true – but in my opinion comes dangerously close to “normalizing” the idea that we should accept intrusion into our personal and private lives. Again, the scary implication is not necessarily what the US government is doing now, but what a future government or even a private entity, in the US or elsewhere, could potentially do tomorrow.
On the other hand, hopefully this will act as a wake-up call. It’s certainly true that Snowden’s 2013 revelations sparked a wave of interest and awareness in encryption – to the point that it became enabled by default in Whatsapp, the world’s most popular messaging application. The installed userbase of the “secure” messaging app Signal also have soared. This reassures me that an ever-growing number of people are becoming aware of privacy issues, and willing to take basic steps to safeguard their data.
What’s needed now is continued demand from citizens that their governments and security services put their interests first – and that means protecting their rights to privacy and ensuring that these powerful and invasive tools are only used when public safety is at stake. As always, please share your views and thoughts in the comments below.
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Original article at linkedin