To avoid NSA, Cisco gear gets delivered to strange addresses

Cisco's security chief said the company has accommodated special requests for those worried about the NSA

One of the most successful U.S. National Security Agency spying programs involved intercepting IT equipment en route to customers and modifying it.

At secret workshops, backdoor surveillance tools were inserted into routers, servers and networking equipment before the equipment was repackaged and sent to customers outside the U.S.

The program, run by the NSA's Tailored Access Operations (TAO) group, was revealed by documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and reported by Der Spiegel and Glenn Greenwald.

It was one of many revelations about the NSA that caused widespread suspicion that U.S. technology products shouldn't be trusted, even if companies strenuously denied helping the agency.

And it appears some Cisco Systems customers have since taken steps to prevent NSA tampering.

The company has shipped equipment to addresses that are unrelated to a customer, said John Stewart, Cisco's chief security and trust officer, on Wednesday during a panel session at the Cisco Live conference in Melbourne.

In theory, that makes it harder for the NSA to target an individual company and scoop up their package. But supply chains are tough to secure, Stewart said, and once a piece of equipment is handed from Cisco to DHL or FedEx, it's gone.

Still, the risk of such tampering is pretty low for most customers. Cisco has been working on better ways for customers to verify the integrity of the systems it ships, but there will always be certain amount of risk that can't be mitigated, Stewart said.

"If a truly dedicated team is coming after you, and they're coming after you for a very long period of time, then the probability of them succeeding at least once does go up," Stewart said. "And its because they've got patience, they've got capacity and more often than not, they've got capability."

One of the leaked Snowden documents, dated June 2010, has two photos of an NSA interdiction operation, with a box that said Cisco on the side.

The document, labeled top secret, goes on to say that supply-chain interdiction operations "are some of the most productive operations in TAO, because they pre-position access points into hard target networks around the world."

In May 2014, Cisco CEO John Chambers sent a letter to President Barack Obama, arguing that the NSA's alleged actions undermine trust with its customers and more broadly hurt the U.S. technology industry. Cisco also asserted that it does not work with any government to intentionally weaken its products.

During the roundtable on Wednesday, Stewart was asked if Cisco ever identified any strange hardware put inside any of its products.

"No, we couldn't, because the only people who would know that for sure is the NSA," Stewart responded.

(Adam Bender of Computerworld Australia contributed to this report.)

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Cisco Systems

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?