The Situation Report: Why the CIA Is Not Spying on Your Television

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Let’s face it, any leak of classified information that reveals a new electronic surveillance capability of the U.S. intelligence community is almost immediately met with a chorus of weeping angels decrying the evil tendencies of intelligence apparatchiks bent on violating the privacy of average Americans.

As a former intelligence officer, I always chuckle listening to the news reports (I’m listening to one by CNN’s Jake Tapper right now as I type this) warning Americans that the private details of their lives are at risk from the horde of three-letter agencies in and around Washington, D.C. I laugh because of the absurdity of thinking that the CIA or any other agency of the U.S. government has the manpower, time, or interest in spying on you while you watch a movie in your living room.

The other reason I laugh—and this is much more important—is because there is very little thought ever given by mainstream journalists or pundits as to the significance of the devices being targeted. As a former intelligence professional, the first thing I ask is, “what intelligence target would hacking such a device give me access to?” Well, the answer I’m looking for in this case is pretty simple. And no, the CIA doesn’t care what Jake Tapper is watching on television late at night when (on the rare occasion) he’s not actually on TV.

For example, since the news broke that WikiLeaks published thousands of documents detailing the CIA’s hacking arsenal targeting iPhones, driverless cars, and smart TVs, has anybody wondered why the CIA would focus on iPhones and Samsung Smart TVs? Let’s look at where the data leads us.

Smart TV shipments worldwide by region. (Source: Statista.com)

You don’t have to be an intelligence officer to know that China is Apple’s most important market when it comes to iPhone sales. Sure, sales in China recently tanked, but that doesn’t mean our intelligence agencies should ignore the fact that Apple sold nearly 45 million iPhones in China last year. And the rumored major redesign of the iPhone is directed squarely at taking more of the market share in China.

You also don’t need to be the CIA director to know that Samsung dominates the smart TV market, especially in Europe and China. The latest sales figures indicate that smart TV manufacturers shipped more than 11 million smart TVs to China—nearly three times the number sold in the U.S.

News Flash: The United States has a vital national interest in spying on China. They are among our most important potential adversaries on the world stage. I just hope the CIA is working on similar exploits for smartphones manufactured by OPPO, Huawei, and Vivo, and China’s newest smart TV players like Xiaomi, Alibaba, Hisense, and Baidu. Because Chinese politicians and senior Army officers are surely busy disposing of their Samsung TVs right about now.

2 Comments
  1. Anonymous | - Reply
    Dan your point is well-taken, even without some of the critical details missed in your post. In the instance of the TV's example, the device needs to first be compromised via USB (physical access to the TV) to install the malware according to many reports regarding this particular exploit. That said, however, the CIA is clearly subverting the Vulnerabilities Equities Process under the guise of national security interests. We need to ask the question is the CIA contributing to making the internet as a whole less safe? They should no longer assume that any tool or exploit they develop will not eventually end up in the hands of enemies or criminals.
  2. Dan Verton | - Reply
    The USB vector is a relatively minor issue. Most assume remote capabilities were/are being developed. Event if they prove difficult, the physical supply chain can be compromised with the USB method. Good points all around, but I think we are past the point where we can unilaterally disarm in cyberspace. That would be unwise.

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