CIA elite hacking unit was not able to protect its tools and cyber weapons

Pierluigi Paganini June 17, 2020

A CIA elite hacking unit that developed cyber-weapons failed in protecting its operations, states an internal report on the Vault 7 data leak.

According to an internal report drown up after the 2016 data breach that led to the ‘Vault 7‘ data leak, a specialized CIA unit involved in the development of hacking tools and cyber weapons failed in protecting its operations and was able to respond after the leak of its secrets.

In March, Joshua Schulte, a former CIA software engineer that was accused of stealing the agency’s hacking tools and leaking them to WikiLeaks, was convicted of only minor charges.

In middle May 2018, both The New York Times and The Washington Post, revealed the name of the alleged source of the Vault 7 leak, the man who passed the secret documents to Wikileaks. According to his LinkedIn profile, Schulte worked for the NSA for five months in 2010 as a systems engineer, after this experience, he joined the CIA as a software engineer and he left the CIA in November 2016.

Schulte was identified a few days after WikiLeaks started leaking the precious dumps.

Now Sen. Ron Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released excerpts of the report that were made public via recent Department of Justice (DoJ) court filings.

“The WikiLeaks breach occurred at CCI, whose mission is to transform intelligence through cyber operations. It would be unfair to lay the blame for the breach with the current management, as the breach occurred before most joined CCI.” states the report.

“These shortcomings were emblematic of a culture that evolved over years that too often prioritized creativity and collaboration at the expense of security,” according to the report.

Sen. Ron Wyden also sent a letter to new National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe, asking him to detail the measures implemented to protect secret information held by federal intelligence agencies.

“The theft of top-secret computer hacking tools from the CIA in 2016 was the result of a workplace culture in which the agency’s elite computer hackers “prioritized building cyber weapons at the expense of securing their own systems,” according to an internal report prepared for then-director Mike Pompeo as well as his deputy, Gina Haspel, now the director.” reported The Washington Post.

According a report recently published by Chinese security firm Qihoo 360, leaked materials they collected reveal that Vault 7 was developed by Joshua and that APT-C -39 a CIA-linked hacking unit.

The Chinese security firm also adds that the APT-C-39 hacking group employed several Vault 7 tools in its operations, including the Fluxwire backdoor, and the Grasshopper malware builder.

crypto CIA Wikileaks

Qihoo 360 reported that technical details of most implants used by the APT-C-39 are consistent with the ones described in the Vault 7 dump. Experts added that APT-C-39 used relevant cyber weapons against targets in China before the leak of Vault 7 documents.

The CIA report highlighted the lax cybersecurity measures by the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, a super-sophisticated hackers unit.

“Because the stolen data resided on a mission system that lacked user activity monitoring and a robust server audit capability, we did not realize the loss had occurred until a year later, when WikiLeaks publicly announced it in March 2017.” continues the report. “Had the data been stolen for the benefit of a state adversary and not published, we might still be unaware of the loss—as would be true for the vast majority of data on Agency mission systems”

“CIA works to incorporate best-in-class technologies to keep ahead of and defend against ever-evolving threats.” said CIA spokesman Tim Barrett, who did not release any comment on the report

Since the precedent leak of secret documents made years before by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the US intelligence failed again it protect its information.

“CIA has moved too slowly to put in place the safeguards that we
knew were necessary given successive breaches to other US Government agencies. For nearly a decade WikiLeaks has exploited the digital realm to profoundly reshape opportunities for individuals sworn to protect our nation’s secrets to leak classified or sensitive information.” continues the report “While CIA was an early leader in securing our enterprise information technology (IT) system, we failed to correct acute vulnerabilities to our mission IT systems.”

“Most of our sensitive cyber weapons were not compartmented, users shared systems administrator-level passwords, there were no effective removable media controls, and historical data was available to users
indefinitely. Furthermore, CCI focused on building cyber weapons and neglected to also prepare mitigation packages if those tools were exposed.”

The data dump had a dramatic impact on the CIA operations, it revealed its capabilities to the potential targets making them no more effective.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – hacking, CIA)

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