WikiLeaks will share CIA hacking details with companies, but can they use it?

The White House is reminding companies that accepting classified information is illegal

WikiLeaks plans to share details about what it says are CIA hacking tools with the tech companies so that software fixes can be developed.

But will software companies want it?

The information WikiLeaks plans to share comes from 8,700-plus documents it says were stolen from an internal CIA server. If the data is classified -- and it almost certainly is -- possessing it would be a crime.

That was underlined on Thursday by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who advised tech vendors to consider the legal consequences of receiving documents from WikiLeaks.

“If a program or a piece of information is classified, it remains classified regardless of whether or not it is released into the public venue or not,” he said. “There’s a reason that we have classification levels, and that’s to protect our country and our people.”

However, his comments aren’t sitting well with some legal experts.

“The idea that the government might stand in the way of companies fixing vulnerabilities that have already been disclosed is remarkable -- and reckless,” Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an email.

Cindy Cohn, an attorney and executive director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said using U.S. law to penalize vendors would be a "gross misuse."

U.S. laws about security clearances on classified documents were never designed with software patching in mind, she said.

“It would be really wrong-headed for the government to go after these companies for simply trying to make their technologies more secure,” Cohn said. “It’s exactly the opposite of what they (the U.S. government) should be doing.”

To-date, the CIA hasn’t confirmed whether any of the documents published by Wikileaks are legitimate, but there is widespread belief they are.

Tuesday's dump by WikiLeaks contained information on numerous exploits aimed at smartphones, PCs and software from major vendors including Apple, Google and Microsoft, but the source code for the attack tools wasn't published.

On Thursday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said tech vendors would be given “exclusive access” to the tools, so they could learn how to better secure their products.

“WikiLeaks has a lot more information on what has been going on with the (CIA) cyberweapons program,” Assange said.

And there's another worry: If WikiLeaks managed to get its hands on the data, it could be elsewhere too, increasing the risk that companies and consumers are being watched online.

So the U.S. government should be helping tech vendors patch the vulnerabilities involved in the leak, said John Bambenek, manager of threat systems at Fidelis Cybersecurity.

“Right now, there’s only risk and no reward,” Bambenek said. “We need to fix that risk.”

It's unclear when WikiLeaks plans to begin sharing the information.

On Thursday, vendors including Microsoft, along with the security firms Avira and Comodo, said that WikiLeaks hasn’t contacted them yet.

“Our preferred method for anyone with knowledge of security issues, including the CIA or WikiLeaks, is to submit details to us at secure@microsoft.com,” Microsoft said in an email.

Others such as antivirus vendor Bitdefender said they expect WikiLeaks to reach out to them probably over the following days.

“If WikiLeaks do want to reach out to us, we are always grateful for an opportunity to make our products even better,” the company said in an email.

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Michael Kan

IDG News Service
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