In the late eighteenth century English Utilitarian philosopher and social-theorist Jeremy Bentham devised what he called the “perfect prison” – The Panopticon. The design is simple, a circular prison with one guard in the central room, and all the cells facing the guard tower. In this way the gaoler can have a line of sight to every cell at once, and no inmate can ever be sure he’s not being observed. Bentham described it as:
…a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example…a mill for grinding rogues honest.”
Wikileaks latest release of classified documents, entitled Vault 7, comes as a timely reminder to all of us (as if we needed it) that the panopticon – the theorized perfect prison – is now a fibre-optic, digitized, hard-coded reality.
Here’s a run down from Wikileaks’ own analysis page (with some added emphasis):
The increasing sophistication of surveillance techniques has drawn comparisons with George Orwell’s 1984, but “Weeping Angel”, developed by the CIA’s Embedded Devices Branch (EDB), which infests smart TVs, transforming them into covert microphones, is surely its most emblematic realization.
The attack against Samsung smart TVs was developed in cooperation with the United Kingdom’s MI5/BTSS. After infestation, Weeping Angel places the target TV in a ‘Fake-Off’ mode, so that the owner falsely believes the TV is off when it is on. In ‘Fake-Off’ mode the TV operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the Internet to a covert CIA server.
As of October 2014 the CIA was also looking at infecting the vehicle control systems used by modern cars and trucks. The purpose of such control is not specified, but it would permit the CIA to engage in nearly undetectable assassinations.
The CIA’s Mobile Devices Branch (MDB) developed numerous attacks to remotely hack and control popular smart phones. Infected phones can be instructed to send the CIA the user’s geolocation, audio and text communications as well as covertly activate the phone’s camera and microphone.
The CIA’s Remote Devices Branch’s UMBRAGE group collects and maintains a substantial library of attack techniques ‘stolen’ from malware produced in other states including the Russian Federation. With UMBRAGE and related projects the CIA cannot only increase its total number of attack types but also misdirect attribution by leaving behind the “fingerprints” of the groups that the attack techniques were stolen from.
These early analyses show us the powerful trifecta of these operations – the CIA can hear you, find you and…if they deem it necessary…kill you. In fact, the reveal that the CIA has been working on hacking vehicle control systems adds new dimensions to the (as yet unsolved) case of Michael Hastings, a counter-culture voice in the American press who died in an inexplicable car accident four years ago. (A good rundown of the case can be found here.)
The repetition of a now well-established fact – that the CIA, NSA, DHS…whoever…can hack various electrical devices to listen in to our communications is nicely topical, given the current clash between the in-coming and out-going presidential administrations. An interesting thought is that Wikileaks, if it ever was as completely impartial and alternative as it purports to be, might be being used to score political points. The theorized split between the CIA (pro-Hillary) and the FBI (pro-Trump) works well as an explanation for this, as it did with the DNC and Podesta e-mail dumps prior to the elections. Either way, this information is nicely timed to remind the world that, as we already reported, of course Donald Trump was being surveilled. Everyone is.
The final section we’ve highlighted, the proof that “…the CIA cannot only increase its total number of attack types but also misdirect attribution by leaving behind the “fingerprints” of the groups that the attack techniques were stolen from” is an interesting tidbit of information. Worth remembering, because it will almost definitely have fallen down the memory hole next time some “evidence” is produced claiming Russia or China or Iran have hacked this, that or the other.
Further along in Wikileaks’ explanation of the data, and much discussed on CNN and in Congress (who seem rather unfazed by the illegal bugging and possible assassinations), is that the CIA’s arsenal of “cyber-weapons” were unsecured, and probably stolen by unknown parties.
Did state and/or non-state actors access and steal CIA created data-mining programs and spyware? I don’t think it matters. At all. The reasoning behind this is fairly simple. Firstly, there are no groups LESS trustworthy than the American military intelligence institutions. Secondly, and more importantly, I don’t believe it to be true.
I don’t think the CIA had their weapons “stolen”, I think that establishing – in the public eye – that they don’t have sole control of these tools enables them to preserve plausible deniability, in the event they are used.
If the cyber-tools the CIA developed are also in private hands, they were more likely sold than stolen. The CIA has massive corporate ties in the media, defense, pharmaceuticals and countless other big corporate interests. To the extent it is essentially one large family.
So what has the media reaction been? Four years ago I would have answered “disappointing”, these days I would say “predictable”.
CNN chose to focus on the “stolen” angle, suggesting there be a Senate investigation – not into the CIA’s power to illegally surveil and/or kill American citizens – but into their lax security and whether or not they have endangered national security by letting their toys get taken away.
Already the false premise is set and the subject for debate is decided: The question is not whether or not they should have these powers, but whether enough is being done to ensure they are the only people who have them. In this way a public outcry can be generated, the CIA can be brought before the senate and begged to tighten their security (possibly further slipping what little congressional oversight they still endure in the process). Engineering a situation whereby the citizenry plead with you to what you wanted to do all along is one of the oldest tricks of government.
Ewen McAskill, writing in the Guardian, has this to say:
The leak, dubbed “Vault 7” by WikiLeaks, will once again raise questions about the inability of US spy agencies to protect secret documents in the digital age.
He talks about it being an “embarrassment” for the CIA, and “good timing” for Trump. You’ll also be interested to know he considers the sky to be blue, and water wet. In-depth analysis is thin on the ground, as (more troublingly) is any indication that he understands that this is morally repugnant.
The BBC considers Wikileaks revelations to be a smaller story than the Lords voting on small amendments to the article 50 bill, or the Champions League. The story about how the CIA is spying on all of us and researching covert assassination techniques was filed, not under “politics”, but rather “technology”. You can only imagine that, had this modern BBC existed in 1945, they’d have reported the bombing of Hiroshima under “technology” too, perhaps with the headline “US make breakthrough in use of Nuclear energy”.
No one in the media is ready to concede this vindicates Trumps “wire-tap” tweets from a few days ago, or willing to admit that the “that would be illegal!” defence from Obama’s reps was farcical. (They will instead, in the coming days, point to this being another example of WikiLeaks being on Trump’s side and probably in the pay of Russia. Just watch).
All-in-all the media are taking it in their stride, not one source I could find expressed any kind of shock or moral outrage. They take a deliberately apathetic tone chosen very carefully. They tell us the facts, but refuse to analyse them. They address the current reality as the only option.
That the state claims the power to invade our privacy is a given, that they have the tools to do so, an unfortunate fact of life. Set in stone. The way the world works. No thought is given to holding governmental power to account, and no column inches supplied to those with an angry voice. In short the media provide only one message: They are always watching you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
In that sense the media, and even Wikileaks, provide a valuable service. There’s no point in creating a panopticon if nobody knows they are being watched.