Big tech companies are pushing back against an offer of collaboration from Julian Assange to help protect their customers from what the WikiLeaks founder called a “giant arsenal” of Central Intelligence Agency cyberweapons.
The whistleblowing site this week began to reveal what it claims is a huge trove of documents and data detailing the CIA’s hacking tools, used to break into smartphones, PCs and internet-connected televisions. So far, WikiLeaks has held off publishing the viruses, trojans and other malware.
In a webcast on Thursday from his home at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, Mr Assange said some technology companies had contacted WikiLeaks seeking more information about the CIA’s technology so they can “develop countermeasures” by patching flaws in their products.
“After . . . hearing these calls from some of the manufacturers, we have decided to work with them to give them some exclusive access to the additional technical details we have, so that fixes can be developed,” Mr Assange said on Facebook Live. “Once this material is effectively disarmed by us, by removing critical components, we will publish additional details about what has been occurring.”
However, speaking privately, some technology companies said such co-operation was unlikely, arguing that there were both moral and legal barriers to working with Mr Assange, who has long been a divisive figure in Silicon Valley.
The classified nature of WikiLeaks’ disclosures makes it legally dangerous even to look at the purported tools and vulnerabilities without the government’s consent, people at some tech groups said. If the US authorities acknowledged the validity of the tools, it would be tantamount to admitting to the hacking of leading US technology companies’ products.
Some in Silicon Valley suspect Mr Assange of trying to bolster his reputation by inserting himself into the fractious relationship between the technology industry and the US government. A person at one company said it had a policy of not working with “bad actors” and included WikiLeaks in that designation.
However, others cautioned that their reticence to collaborate could change if more damaging revelations emerged from WikiLeaks’ trove. Tech companies have been cautiously optimistic that they have already addressed many of the vulnerabilities disclosed by WikiLeaks.
“While our initial analysis indicates that many of the issues leaked were already patched in the latest iOS [operating system for iPhones and iPads], we will continue work to rapidly address any identified vulnerabilities,” Apple said this week.
Google, which develops the Android operating system used by most of the world’s smartphone manufacturers as well as the Chrome web browser, said on Wednesday it was “confident that security updates and protections” in both platforms “already shield users from many of these alleged vulnerabilities”.
Mr Assange said on Thursday that WikiLeaks had “a lot of material” that was yet to be processed. “It’s a big journalistic investigation,” he said. “We need more partners.”
Mr Assange’s allegations of the CIA’s mishandling of its cyber weapons in some ways echo Apple’s fight with the FBI last year, over whether to help the authorities develop a tool that could be used to break into a terrorist’s iPhone. Apple resisted, arguing that once such a tool was created it would be impossible to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, putting millions of customers at risk.
Mr Assange called the leak of the CIA material “a historic act of devastating incompetence — to have created such an arsenal and stored it all in one place and not secured it”. WikiLeaks discovered the material because it was already being “passed around” in the US intelligence community in an “unauthorised fashion”.
“The CIA lost control of its entire cyber weapons arsenal,” Mr Assange said into the camera. “This brings into question the entire concept of cyber warfare because it is our analysis . . . [that] it is impossible to keep effective control of cyber weapons. If you build them, eventually you will lose them.”
The CIA, which has not confirmed nor denied the authenticity of WikiLeaks’ materials, told the AP on Thursday: “As we’ve said previously, Julian Assange is not exactly a bastion of truth and integrity.”
In another twist to the WikiLeaks story on Thursday, it emerged that Mr Assange met Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence party and radio presenter. Mr Farage spent less than an hour at the Ecuadorean embassy where Mr Assange has lived since seeking asylum there in 2012, a person close to Ukip confirmed.
Spotted outside the Knightsbridge property, the populist politician told BuzzFeed News that he could not remember what he was doing in the embassy, adding: “I never discuss where I go or who I see.”
Additional reporting by Henry Mance in London
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