Technology

The weird names the CIA gives its hacking tools

Gamer at 'World Of Warcraft' at the Blizzard Entertainment stand at the Gamescom 2016 Image copyright Getty Images

Thousands of documents said to detail the CIA's hacking tools were published by Wikileaks on Tuesday, and many were given peculiar names by their makers. Here are five of the strangest.


Weeping Angel

One of the hacking tools that featured in a lot of headlines was the Weeping Angel that appears to get a Samsung Smart TV to record conversations.

It's named after a character in the sci-fi TV series Doctor Who, which appears as still as a statue.

The name could have been chosen "because you think it is not alive but it is, you think it isn't doing anything but it is" says Alan Woodward, a security researcher who advises Europol and previously advised UK spy agency GCHQ.

The leaks suggest the TV appears to turn itself off and, likewise, the weeping angel can appear to be frozen and come to life when you are not looking.

While the UK's MI5 agency is said to have helped build this spyware, it's possible CIA hackers from the US are also Doctor Who fans.

Another hacking tool, which attempts to listen to calls on systems such as Skype, is named after the Sontarans.

These characters look like potatoes and try to conquer the earth by emitting poisoned gas.


Ricky Bobby

Image copyright AP

The tool Ricky Bobby can control a computer remotely without detection using commands in Microsoft Windows, according to the leak.

But it is named after a far more conspicuous character.

Racing car driver Ricky Bobby was played by Will Ferrell in the 2006 film Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

After crashing in a race, he runs round the track wearing only his helmet and underwear insisting he is on fire.

He also manages to get his best friend, Cal, to become a car racer.

This is not lost on the makers of Ricky Bobby the hacking tool.

When they made a listening post for RickyBobby, they called it Cal.


Starving Weasel

Image copyright AP

One of the leaks suggests hackers love naming their spy tools so much that they come up with names before they've made the tool.

Starving Weasel is from a long list of names for future tools chosen "because they are awesome".

"These are mostly oblique references to things I like, TV tropes names that amuse me and situations or phrases at work encoded in toolname-esque obscurity," says the person whose name has been replaced with User #77010.

Oblique is an understatement.

Starving Weasel is a reference to a lyric from mid-way through an 11-minute song by Weird Al Yankovic.

In the song Albuquerque, Weird Al goes to the doughnuts shop only to be told there are no doughnuts left but there is a "box of one dozen starving, crazed weasels".

He buys the weasels and they jump out of their box and start eating his face, at which point he meets the woman of his dreams.


Maddening Whispers

Image copyright Getty Images

This is where the CIA hackers may reveal themselves in their geekiest form, because Maddening Whispers is a reference to the online role-playing game World of Warcraft.

"It's almost too stereotypical - it's really painting a picture of a hacker who likes pizza, beer, science fiction and online gaming," says Mr Woodward.

The game sees players exploring a vast landscape full of monsters, completing quests and interacting with other gamers.

Maddening Whispers is a spell in the game, which, when you deploy it, slowly weakens your opponent.

As for the tool, it tries to get remote access to a device named Vanguard.

Mr Woodward is unsure what this refers to but suggests it could be Vanguard alarm systems.

Niche on both counts.


Snowy Owl

Image copyright Hawk Conservancy Trust

Some hacking tools are named after slightly more obvious signs of aggression: birds of prey.

Bald eagle, harpy eagle and sparrowhawk all feature.

A bird of prey can swoop on its victim almost silently.

Similarly, the sparrowhawk tool can detect the letters you are hitting on a keyboard without you having any idea you are being watched.

Then there is the less threatening snowy owl, which is described in the leaks as a tool designed to remotely operate a Mac computer.

There is a possibility it was not named after the bird at all but instead was inspired by the Brownies.

In a Brownie troop the Snowy Owl is an adult who helps the leader of the troop, the Brown Owl.

"Maybe we have our first indication that there is a woman involved," speculates Mr Woodward.

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