Australia’s intelligence services probably have the same eavesdropping tools the latest document dump from WikiLeaks suggests are being used by the CIA to hack into smartphones and smart TVs, experts have told The New Daily.
WikiLeaks on Wednesday released thousands of leaked documents that detail sophisticated software tools apparently used by the US intelligence agency to break into everyday electronic devices.
Cyber security and spy experts said it was likely the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had access to similar technologies because of the close intelligence cooperation between Australia and the United States.
“Could ASIO do this and does ASIO have this capacity? I would say absolutely,” David Glance, director of the Centre for Software Practice at the University of Western Australia, said.
“Whether it’s to the same extent as the CIA, possibly not, because we are talking about orders of magnitude in terms of budget and capability.”
The leaked “Vault 7” documents describe the CIA using software to bypass encryption used by popular messaging apps such as Signal and WhatsApp, and collecting malware from foreign entities such as Russia.
They also outline a program called “Weeping Angel” that purportedly allows the agency to use Samsung’s smart TVs as covert bugging devices.
Jai Galliott, a research fellow at the Australian Centre for Cyber Security, agreed it was “highly likely” that Australia had use of similar technology because of its close collaboration with the US in developing spy-related software.
He said the cyber security training provided by his centre to members of the Australian Defence Force suggested the same.
“That is a good indicator, I think, for the public that Australia does have similar capability, even though the government doesn’t really discuss it,” Mr Galliott said.
Asked if he had knowledge of operations similar to those in the leaks happening in Australia, he said: “I wouldn’t be able to comment if I did.”
Both experts said the disclosures about the CIA’s far-reaching capabilities were entirely plausible.
“If the government wants to target you in the modern age, there’s no way to really be 100 per cent sure that you’re safe, so to speak,” Mr Galliott said.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no point taking precautions.
Mr Glance said that using encrypted communications and making sure to regularly update applications and software did help keep conversations private.
But televisions, usually not having access to software updates, tended to be a “sitting duck”, Mr Galliott said.
The prospect of advanced spy technology being available in Australia is likely to raise tensions between security and civil liberties in this country.
While metadata – which includes information like IP addresses and phone numbers – is accessible by security services without judicial oversight, the actual content of private communications can only be legally accessed with a court warrant.
In addition, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, currently Justice Margaret Stone, who oversees the intelligence community, reserves the right to inspect agency records and investigate complaints.
“Legally, hacking any device would be permitted under certain circumstances under amendments made to the law a couple of years ago,” Geoff Holland, a law professor at the University of Technology Sydney, told The New Daily.
“And I have no doubt that, as far as most devices go, there is the ability for them to do this,” Mr Holland said.
“And if they did not have the ability or were not legally authorised to do so, information of Australians’ online activities is likely to be collected by US services under their PRISM [surveillance] program. This information may then be shared with Australian intelligence.”
Mr Galliott, however, said that Australia’s intelligence community was not necessarily as intrusive as in the US. He said his interactions with military personnel on a daily basis gave him confidence in the judgment of the authorities.
“The value set that they have is what reassures me in terms of the sort of activities that Australians are conducting,” he said.