New WikiLeaks documents reveal US government agent stymied by a dialogue box in Chinese during an attempted hack
How do you frustrate a CIA hacker? Show them Chinese.
In one of the 8,761 new documents released by WikiLeaks on Tuesday, which exposed the CIA’s global cyberespionage operations on an unprecedented scale, an agent on China missions lamented the language barrier.
“I do not speak Chinese,” he wrote in an internal post in 2014. The confidential documents and files released by WikiLeaks were said to have come from an isolated, high-security cyberattack facility operated by the CIA’s Centre for Cyber Intelligence in Langley, Virginia.
WikiLeaks had replaced the names of actual persons with code numbers.
A dialogue box in Chinese had kept popping up on screen as the agent tried to install a test program on a computer running the Windows operating system. Unable to understand what the box said, he tried everything from setting the system region to an English-speaking zone to forcing the program installer to use English.
The agent seemed to be experienced, having worked at the facility since 2009, according to a log of his or her activities in the WikiLeaks documents.
A Chinese-speaking CIA agent eventually translated the dialogue box for his frustrated English-speaking colleague.
Tang Wei, a cybersecurity engineer and the marketing director of Beijing-based security company Rising, said these seemingly trivial antidotes in the WikiLeaks files might contain some valuable information.
“The American cyberwar machine has been operating under the hood and it is very difficult for an outsider to get a glimpse of what happens inside an operation centre. These documents revealed the tip of an iceberg,” he said.
The knowledge of how the CIA cyber units operate and the weaknesses and strengths of their agents will help other parties to come up with more effective defences or counter-attacks, according to Tang.
The language barrier, for instance, came as a surprise. The issue rarely entered the heads of cybersecurity experts because nearly all code lines are written in universal languages any programmer in the world can read.
But some Chinese software engineers have the habit of inserting Chinese text into source code to aid their memories and communicate with colleagues. This can cause unexpected obstacles for foreign attackers.
Tang said the WikiLeaks document also confirmed the suspicion that the CIA and other US government agencies had recruited a number of Chinese-speaking hackers to assist in and accelerate China-related operations.
Rising, with clients in the Chinese industrial and government sectors, was part of a long list of companies targeted by CIA cyber operatives, according to the leaked files.
The files said the CIA had also developed many tools to infiltrate mobile phones, computers and even smart televisions running operating systems from Microsoft, Google, Apple and Samsung. Many of these had already been leaked and were circulating in global black markets, prompting proliferation concerns over global cybersecurity.
Weibo, a popular social media app developed by Chinese internet company Sina, might also be compromised, according to the WikiLeaks documents.
South China Morning Post