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 CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Cisco Systemssecurity

More about CiscoFedExNational Security AgencyNSASpiegel

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Jeremy Kirk

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place