Cisco’s chief executive has written to President Barack Obama warning of a collapse of trust in US technology after evidence emerged showing the National Security Agency breaking into his company’s equipment.
In a letter John Chambers called for “standards of conduct” to rein in government surveillance so that national security objectives do not interfere with the US’s leading position in the global technology market.
The letter was dated the day after pictures circulated on the internet showing NSA staff opening boxes of Cisco gear so that the US security agency can monitor internet traffic after the equipment has been shipped to customers.
Mr Chambers complained that the NSA actions would undermine confidence among customers of US technology firms. A spokesperson for Cisco confirmed that its chief executive had sent the letter but declined to comment any further.
“We simply cannot operate this way, our customers trust us to be able to deliver to their doorsteps products that meet the highest standards of integrity and security,” the letter from Mr Chambers states.
There have been allegations that the NSA has intercepted IT equipment in transit from manufacturers to customers to help monitor and gain information on surveillance targets. The equipment modified by the NSA included routers, servers and other computer network devices exported from the US, according to the reports.
The NSA responded that “the implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false” but would not address specific incidences. The letter from Cisco says that “if these allegations are true, these actions will undermine confidence in our industry and in the ability of technology companies to deliver products globally”.
In its results last week, Mr Chambers admitted that the NSA activities had caused customers in some emerging countries to delay purchases. Cisco makes equipment that handles internet traffic, and so could be more at risk than other technology groups if customers question the security of the products.
Other technology groups have already complained to the president about the alleged actions of the NSA. In December, eight technology companies including Apple, Facebook and Google called for the reform of existing laws and practices. Facebook and Google have both publicly attacked the NSA after revelations specifically involving their technology and services.
In his May 15 letter, Mr Chambers asked Mr Obama “to take more steps and a leadership role to ensure that guidelines and reforms are put into place that can be honoured across the globe”. Mr Chambers said that confidence in the open, global internet has brought economic benefits to the US, but that this would be “eroded by revelations of government’s surveillance . . . and allegations that governments exploit rather than report security vulnerabilities”.
He added: “Absent a new approach where the industry plays a role, but in which you, Mr President, can lead, we are concerned that our country’s global technological leadership will be impaired. Moreover, the result could be a fragmented internet, where the promise of the next internet is never fully realised.”