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In the early hours of the morning of March 4th, 2017, President Donald J. Trump sent out a series of tweets on Twitter.com, accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in October, 2016, and berating Obama for engaging in “McCarthyism” and “Nixon/Watergate” style tactics.
Almost immediately, the press started the spinning, Trump is paranoid, he believes everything he reads on the internet, these charges are preposterous, these charges are not credible, etc. Obama was quick to issue a denial, even expressing umbrage at the very insinuation. Trump’s allegations were said to have been based on the content of a news article from the Brietbart News Service.
Trump is melting down. Trump is not living in reality. Sad.
BUT THERE IS MORE... On Tuesday, March 7, 2017, WikiLeaks decides to gift us with another one of their data dumps. The initial release, which WikiLeaks said was only the first part of the document collection, included 7,818 web pages with 943 attachments. The contents are of a highly disturbing nature.
The documents released described sophisticated software tools used by the Central Intelligence Agency to break into smartphones, computers and even Internet-connected televisions. The WikiLeaks release said that the C.I.A. and allied intelligence services had managed to bypass encryption on popular phone and messaging services such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. According to the statement from WikiLeaks, government hackers can penetrate Android phones and collect “audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.”
The documents, from the C.I.A.’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, are dated from 2013 to 2016, and WikiLeaks described them as “the largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.” One former intelligence officer who briefly reviewed the documents on Tuesday morning said some of the code names for C.I.A. programs, an organization chart and the description of a C.I.A. hacking base appeared to be genuine. Among the descriptions of the C.I.A. hacking programs is one, code-named “Weeping Angel”, uses Samsung “smart” televisions as covert listening devices. According to the WikiLeaks news release, even when it appears to be turned off, the television “operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the internet to a covert C.I.A. server.”
It seems that the C.I.A. certainly has the means to bug anyone they choose, with these sophisticated tools, so the question remains, would they have the go-ahead to conduct such surveillance? Consider this:
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) warrant that President Trump refers to in his Tweets isn’t exactly new: the website Heat Street broke the news of the warrant back on November 7th, noting that the FBI had sought permission in October to investigate a server located in Trump Tower that might have been connected to a pair of Russian banks. An earlier request had been denied by the court earlier that summer. Breitbart’s timeline ties together the initial FISA request with other incidents over the course of last year: Wikileaks’ release of Hillary Clinton’s emails, Trump’s quip during the debate that Russia should hack more emails, further hacks, and the release of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails in October, alleging that these incidents led to the warrant granted in October.
While President Trump questioned the legality of the order, such an action is perfectly legal. The FISA court has been given broad powers to intercept communications, and it’s part of a security apparatus that is at the President’s disposal.
Now suddenly, Trump isn’t looking so paranoid.
Another program described in the documents, named Umbrage, is a voluminous library of cyberattack techniques that the C.I.A. has collected from malware produced by other countries, including Russia. According to the WikiLeaks release, the large number of techniques allows the C.I.A. to mask the origin of some of its cyberattacks and confuse forensic investigators. It is entirely possible that some of these “Russian hacks” were orchestrated by the C.I.A., then masked to look like they originated in Russia.
When we find ourselves living in a society where government agencies have the means and the power to “wiretap” any of us, at will, by merely switching on our camera or microphone in our cellphone or television, or even our toaster, I would say that we truly have crossed the line into the dystopian future that is the stuff of science fiction pulp literature. The question now is, where do we go from here? How do we stop this?