The release by WikiLeaks of Vault 7, a file with more than eight thousand documents detailing some of the techniques that the CIA uses to access information on iOS or Android devices, on our computers, as well as the use of smart TVs to listen to conversations and other equally chilling practices is undoubtedly worrying and revives tensions between technology companies and government spy agencies… but it is hardly surprising.
In reality, it is simply further evidence that spy agencies adapt to the surrounding ecosystem which now consists of devices permanently connected through networks. Today’s “spy kit” no longer consists of a magnifying glass, a flashlight, a pistol or a fake beard, but a computer and an internet connection.
The role of a government espionage agency is to spy. That this espionage is carried out to guarantee the security of a nation or to preserve a certain tyrannical regime is another question that depends on the concept of politics, liberties or ethics of the government of each country. In other words, being scandalized because there are spies or because the spies are engaged in spying is at best naive and at worst a sign of idiocy, and wondering why these spies adapt their methods to the times we live is absurd: Given that we are supposed to accept — although no one asked us — that governments have to have spies and that we have to pay for them with our taxpayers’ money, would we prefer them to continue using outdated tools and methods? Do you want to fight modern spies with sophisticated online tools from a foreign country with agents equipped with magnifying glasses and fake beards?
Obviously, the answer to that question is a very big “it depends”. In the first place, because we would obviously prefer a world without spies. But since since that isn’t going to happen, we will have to consider the different scenarios. If in a country we understand that spies are used to catch terrorists, drug traffickers, criminals or other threats, we will surely want these spies to have the best tools available, and to possess the expertise to invent any they need. If, on the contrary, we think that spies are used to control us, to detect protests or insurgency, to persecute those who think differently and to ignore our most basic human rights, the idea that these spies have the best tools is deeply worrying. It is not the same to live in a democracy where we expect spies to be able to detect a terrorist cell preparing an attack in the center of the city, as to be a homosexual in an Islamic country, or a pro-human rights activist living in a dictatorship, or a non-believer living in a theocracy.
The only thing that the latest WikiLeaks revelations show is that the world is as complex as it was twenty years ago, or probably even more. Twenty years ago government agencies were eavesdropping on our phones and our conversations with microphones, by reading our lips, our letters or tracking our trips: now they tap into our connected electronic devices, which will soon be all devices. As much as we may be concerned or outraged, this is the reality of our world. Things have moved on since the Cold War, and as technology companies strive to use ever more advanced technologies to protect their users, spies will, in turn, find more and better techniques to keep spying on them. Like it or not, spies gonna spy.
Are these leaks good or evil? On the one hand, they lead us to a more transparent society, to understand much better what happens to our privacy and to our data, to put pressure on both the spies and the tech companies (thus leading to further innovation), and to help clarify if there were any wrongdoings (such as spying on innocent citizens without a warrant, as it clearly seems to be the case). On the other hand, they contribute to generate a collective state of psychosis that could collide with our freedom to do ordinary things, and could serve as an example, even a guide, to spies in less developed countries, with all the consequences to citizens in those countries that this possibility may entail. The leaks are not good or evil: they just happen. But if you ask me, I rather live in a world where WikiLeaks exists and plays a significant role in controlling certain behaviors.
Furthermore, we must appreciate the efforts of technology companies to fix the security holes that have allowed spies to spy, and try to be pragmatic and, above all, see things in perspective: most of us, average Joes or Janes who live in democracies, are probably not spied on. What’s more, despite of what was being implied or said yesterday, the CIA has not been able to crack Signal’s encryption, nor WhatsApp’s, or Telegram’s, nor many others. Instead, what they have found are methods to access the devices that originate or receive messages, which can allow them to read those messages at the point of origin or destination. So we don’t yet have to delete apps we thought were safe, and besides, most of us are using them for things that are of no interest whatsoever for the spies of our governments. If you are being spied on and haven’t done anything wrong, then be worried. But not about the spies… about your government! As ever, the problem lies not in technology, but in who uses it and why.