CIA wants to crack Apple security: Report

CIA attempts to crack Apple device security: Report
CIA attempts to crack Apple device security: Report   

The U.S. government is offering its first responses to two major Edward Snowden-related technology spying stories from Tuesday morning.

The Intercept, a news organization co-founded by Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian contributor who worked with Snowden, reported Tuesday that the CIA and U.S. intelligence have spent years trying to hack into Apple computer devices, including the iPhone and the iPad.

The story, based on documents provided by NSA whistleblower Snowden, said that the CIA's Information Operation Center sponsors an annual conference known as the "Trusted Computing Base Jamboree." The 2012 gathering was held at a northern Virginia Lockheed Martin facility, The Intercept reported.

Attendees at the gathering allegedly discussed creating a modified version of Apple's software development tool known as Xcode, in order to gain illicit access to apps or programs created using it, The Intercept reported, with an eye toward "discovering ways to decrypt and ultimately penetrate Apple's encrypted firmware." That, the Intercept wrote, "could enable spies to plant malicious code on Apple devices and seek out potential vulnerabilities in other parts of the iPhone and iPad currently masked by encryption."

iPhone 6
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
iPhone 6

Apple has been one of the tech industry leaders in providing sophisticated encryption capabilities to its customers—an issue that has been a flashpoint of controversy between the industry and the U.S. government.

Read MoreMicrosoft warns Windows PCs also vulnerable to 'Freak' attacks

CNBC does not have access to the Snowden documents, and is unable to independently verify The Intercept's account.

A U.S. intelligence official told CNBC Tuesday that American spies need to develop ways to get covert access to mobile devices.

"That's what we do," the official said. "CIA collects information overseas, and this is focused on our adversaries, whether they be terrorists or other adversaries."

The official insisted the effort was not focused on intellectual property of Apple or any other tech company, but instead on gaining access to information of intelligence value that adversaries may have stored on their mobile devices.

"This isn't just about Apple or Microsoft," the official said. "There's a whole world of devices out there, and that's what we're going to do," the official said. "It is what it is."

All this is revealed just days before CIA Director John Brennan unveils his reorganization plan to focus the CIA more on cyber-spying.

Read MoreSilicon Valley, DC at odds on security clearances

Separately, a senior administration official declined to comment on the "authenticity of these documents or the accuracy of these claims." But the official said the United States "firmly supports the development and robust adoption of strong encryption." The official said that the U.S. government knows terrorists and criminals can use encryption to conduct crimes, presenting a challenge to public safety. "Misuse by a few, however does not change the fact that responsibly deployed encryption helps secure our private communications and commerce."

The senior administration official's comment would appear to go against the grain of comments by FBI Director James Comey, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to head the nation's law enforcement agency.

"Encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place," Comey said at a speech at the Brookings Institution in October. "Encryption is nothing new," Comey said. "But the challenge to law enforcement and national security officials is markedly worse, with recent default encryption settings and encrypted devices and networks—all designed to increase security and privacy."

Asked about the discrepancy between the administration's comment and the FBI director's stated views, a U.S. intelligence official said: "That's why this is an interesting and compelling story for you to write about."

Spokespeople at Lockheed Martin and Apple declined to comment on the report in The Intercept.

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In other Snowden-related news Tuesday, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Wikimedia Foundation board member Lila Tretikov announced in a New York Times op-ed that Wikimedia Foundation is suing the NSA and the Department of Justice over NSA surveillance. The Wikimedia duo argued that NSA surveillance violated the First and Fourth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. At issue is so-called "upstream surveillance" in which the NSA allegedly intercepts and searches international data that flows through servers and communications lines inside the United States.

"As a result, whenever someone overseas views or edits a Wikipedia page, it's likely that the N.S.A. is tracking that activity—including the content of what was read or typed, as well as other information that can be linked to the person's physical location and possible identity," Wales and Tretikov wrote. "The harm to Wikimedia and the hundreds of millions of people who visit our websites is clear: Pervasive surveillance has a chilling effect. It stifles freedom of expression and the free exchange of knowledge that Wikimedia was designed to enable."

The administration responded Tuesday in a statement minimizing the scope of NSA's interest in Wikipedia users.

"We will not comment on any specific matter before the court," a senior administration official told CNBC. "But we've been very clear about what constitutes a valid target of electronic surveillance. The act of innocuously updating or reading an online article would not cause someone to be subjected to electronic surveillance."

A spokesperson for the NSA did not respond to a request for comment.