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Cisco CEO asks Obama to control NSA surveillance

The CEO of the networking giant warns that revelations of NSA spying are undermining confidence in the tech industry.

Cisco CEO John Chambers at Mobile World Congress. Roger Cheng/CNET

Cisco CEO John Chambers has reached out directly to the president of the United States in response to the latest revelations about NSA snooping.

In a letter to President Obama picked up by both The Financial Times and Recode, Chambers pointed to the latest allegations that the National Security Agency intercepted Cisco routers and other equipment in order to secretly install surveillance software. Based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, those allegations are described in the new book "No Place to Hide" by reporter Glenn Greenwald, according to Ars Technica.

Referring to an alleged photo of Cisco gear being modified, Chambers told the president that if the allegations are true, then "these actions will undermine confidence in our industry and in the ability of technology companies to deliver products globally."

Chambers also said that the revelations of government surveillance have eroded confidence in an open, global Internet and made it difficult for companies to follow the considerations of privacy expected by people in other countries.

"We simply cannot operate this way," Chambers added. "Our customers trust us to be able to deliver to their doorsteps products that meet the highest standards of integrity and security."

Chambers lauded the president for certain steps taken so far to try to rein in the NSA. In March, Obama called for an end to the agency's bulk collection of the phone records of American citizens. But those proposals, if and when approved by Congress, won't directly address the concerns that NSA surveillance has hurt American corporations trying to do business overseas.

Many companies have complained that the revelations of NSA spying have damaged their reputation in other countries, affecting their bottom line. Some have even been accused of cooperating with the agency to weaken the security of their own products. In the wake of an atmosphere of mistrust, Cisco's CEO wants the president to do more.

"We are asking your administration to take more steps and a leadership role to ensure that guidelines and reforms are put into place that can be honored around the globe," Chambers said.

A spokesperson for Cisco confirmed to CNET that the company did send the letter but offered no additional comment, saying that the letter speaks for itself. Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told CNET that "we don't generally comment on the president's correspondence."

In a blog posted on May 13, Cisco general counsel Mark Chandler spoke out against the allegations that the NSA installed surveillance software on Cisco equipment.

"We ought to be able to count on the government to then not interfere with the lawful delivery of our products in the form in which we have manufactured them," Chandler said. "To do otherwise, and to violate legitimate privacy rights of individuals and institutions around the world, undermines confidence in our industry."

Chandler also offered the following suggestions on what governments should do to restore confidence in the tech industry:

  • Governments should have policies requiring that product security vulnerabilities that are detected be reported promptly to manufacturers for remediation, unless a court finds a compelling reason for a temporary delay. By the same token, governments should not block third parties from reporting such vulnerabilities to manufacturers.
  • Governments should not interfere with the ability of companies to lawfully deliver internet infrastructure as ordered by their customers.
  • Clear standards should be set to protect information outside the United States which belongs to third parties, but are in the custody of subsidiaries of US companies, so that customers worldwide can know the rules that will apply and work with confidence with US suppliers.

Update, 9:11 a.m. PT: Added confirmation from Cisco.