Covert CIA websites could have been found by an ‘amateur’, research finds

A report raises serious doubts about the US intelligence agency’s handling of safety measures after flaws put sources at risk

First published, Sep 29, 2022

The CIA used hundreds of websites for covert communications that were severely flawed and could have been identified by even an “amateur sleuth”, according to security researchers.

The flaws reportedly led to the death of more than two dozen US sources in China in 2011 and 2012 and also reportedly led Iran to execute or imprison other CIA assets.

The new research was conducted by security experts at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which started investigating the matter after it received a tip from reporter Joel Schectmann at Reuters.

A building damaged by Russian missile attacks in downtown Kharkiv

The group said it was not publishing a full detailed technical report of its findings to avoid putting CIA assets or employees at risk. But its limited findings raise serious doubts about the intelligence agency’s handling of safety measures.

Using just a single website and publicly available material, Citizen Lab said it identified a network of 885 websites that it attributed “with high confidence” as having been used by the CIA. It found that the websites purported to be concerned with news, weather, healthcare and other legitimate websites.

“Knowing only one website, it is likely that while the websites were online, a motivated amateur sleuth could have mapped out the CIA network and attributed it to the US government,” Citizen Lab said in a statement.

The websites were active between 2004 and 2013 and were probably not used by the CIA recently, but Citizen Lab said a subset of the websites were sill linked to active intelligence employees or assets, including a foreign contractor and a current state department employee.

Citizen Lab added: “The reckless construction of this infrastructure by the CIA reportedly led directly to the identification and execution of assets, and undoubtedly risked the lives of countless other individuals. Our hope is that this research and our limited disclosure process will lead to accountability for this reckless behavior.”


CIA spokesperson Tammy Kupperman Thorp said: “CIA takes its obligations to protect the people who work with us extremely seriously and we know that many of them do so bravely, at great personal risk. The notion that CIA would not work as hard as possible to safeguard them is false.”

The CIA did not comment on the New York Times report

The origin of the story dates back to 2018, when reporters Jenna McLaughlin and Zach Dorfman of Yahoo News first reported that a system used by the CIA to communicate with assets had been compromised by Iran and China, leading to the death of more than two dozen sources in China in 2011 and 2012. Yahoo News also reported concerns among people familiar with the breakdown that those responsible had never been held accountable.

Citizen Lab began investigating the matter when it got a tip from Schectmann of a CIA asset in Iran who had been captured and served seven years in prison after using what Citizen Lab later determined was a “fatally insecure network”. Reuters published its full report, America’s Throwaway Spies: How the CIA failed Iranian informants in its secret war with Tehran, on Thursday.


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