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WikiLeaks Vault 7 – ELSA: How the CIA can use WiFi to find you anywhere

If anyone still has doubts that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) can track nearly anyone, anytime, anywhere, a new Vault 7 disclosure from WikiLeaks may dispel them.

The CIA likely used malware codenamed ELSA to pinpoint and, presumably, track target Windows users over long periods, by hacking into WiFi radios on laptops – even when not connected to the Internet.

ELSA works by triangulating the location of the target laptop as its WiFi radios actively listen for public access points whose ESS identifier, MAC address and signal strength are recorded at regular intervals. The malware stores the information in an encrypted file on the target computer itself.

The CIA can then decrypt the data, compare the exfiltrated information against public geo-location databases from Google or Microsoft, and locate the device, with longitude and latitude, and a timestamp.

“The malware itself does not beacon this data to a CIA back-end; instead the operator must actively retrieve the log file from the device – again using separate CIA exploits and backdoors,” according to the non-profit.

ELSA can be customized to match environmental and operational factors, including sampling interval, maximum logfile size, invocation and persistence. Using the same geo-location databases maintained by Internet giants, additional back-end software can generate a tracking profile.

Two weeks ago, in a similar Vault 7 dump, WikiLeaks revealed how the CIA could use a malware “implant” (codenamed CherryBlossom) to turn at least 25 WiFi router and access point models into surveillance posts.

And two weeks before the CherryBlossom leak, WikiLeaks made a new disclosure from the Agency’s Pandemic project that allegedly “targets remote users by replacing application code on-the-fly with a trojaned version if the program is retrieved from the infected machine.”

The CIA is apparently sitting on a trove of surveillance tools, but WikiLeaks has so far failed to prove the agency is abusing them.

About the author


Filip is an experienced writer with over a decade of practice in the technology realm. He has covered a wide range of topics in such industries as gaming, software, hardware and cyber-security, and has worked in various B2B and B2C marketing roles. Filip currently serves as Information Security Analyst with Bitdefender.


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    • The malware employed to leverage WiFi radios in this case was Windows-specific. That doesn't mean someone with the right skills and motivation cannot code a Mac or a Linux version. This particular leak, however, talks of a Windows-specific piece of malware.