Julian Assange(Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth, AP)
WikiLeaks will allow tech companies access to much more detailed information about CIA hacking techniques so they can "develop fixes" before the information is widely published, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Thursday.
Assange spoke two days after WikiLeaks published thousands of documents it said revealed hacking tools the CIA developed to break into servers, smartphones, computers and TVs. The news conference took place at the Embassy of Ecuador in London, where Assange has been holed up since seeking asylum in 2012.
"The Central Intelligence Agency lost control of its entire cyberweapons arsenal," Assange said. "This is an historic act of devastating incompetence to have created such an arsenal and stored it all in one place and not secured it."
Assange said that some tech firms have reached out seeking more details about the CIA tools. He said WikiLeaks hasn't published the details because it doesn't want "journalists and people of the world, our sources, being hacked using these weapons." The best way to avoid that, he said, is to give companies such as Apple, Google and Samsung access first.
"We have decided to work with them, to give them some exclusive access to some of the technical details we have, so that fixes can be pushed out," Assange said.
Some tech giants, Google and Apple among them, said many of the apparent vulnerabilities exposed in the documents have already been patched. Microsoft issued a statement Thursday saying most of the issues appeared to involve problems with older technology that had been addressed with more modern software systems. Most firms said they are continuing to evaluate the WikiLeaks information.
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd declined to vouch for the integrity of the WikiLeaks material. Boyd has stressed the CIA is prohibited from conducting electronic surveillance targeting individuals in the U.S. and "does not do so."
“As we’ve said previously, Julian Assange is not exactly a bastion of truth and integrity," Boyd said Thursday. "Despite the efforts of Assange and his ilk, CIA continues to aggressively collect foreign intelligence overseas to protect America from terrorists, hostile nation states and other adversaries.”
There’s no legal reason why tech companies couldn’t make use of the information, should WikiLeaks give them the code, said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-partisan digital rights group based in San Francisco.
Under a Supreme Court ruling from 2001 in the case of a radio station that aired illegally-obtained recordings, the court determined that as the station itself didn’t participate in the illegal interception it couldn't be prosecuted for airing them.
Another factor is that thus far the CIA has refused to confirm whether the documents are genuine or not. If the agency were to try to prosecute the companies for making use of the code in the its cyber tools and weapons to patch the holes, it would first have to prove they were authentic, Opsahl said.
WikiLeaks says the CIA hacking division involved "more than 5,000 registered users and had produced more than a thousand hacking systems, trojans, viruses, and other 'weaponized' malware." The information circulated among former government hackers and contractors, one of whom provided the website with portions of it, WikiLeaks claims.
The FBI launched a criminal investigation into the release of the document cache, a U.S. official told USA TODAY this week. The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly, said the inquiry will determine whether the disclosure represented a breach from the outside or a leak from inside the spy agency. A separate review will attempt to assess the damage caused by such the disclosure, the official said.
WikiLeaks has conducted a global crusade to expose government secrets through a series of controversial and sometimes embarrassing document dumps in recent years.
Assange sought asylum in Ecuador's embassy more than four years ago to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he has been accused of sexual assault, and the United States, where he fears possible espionage charges. But his position is tenuous. Guillermo Lasso, the front-runner in Ecuador’s presidential runoff set for April 2, has said that if elected he will evict Assange.
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Contributing: Kevin Johnson, Doug Stanglin; Elizabeth Weise