The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has its own catalog of vulnerabilities that it uses to exploit commercial networking gear in order to insert backdoors to conduct surveillance, according to a report published this weekend in German news magazine Der Spiegel.
The report is based on materials leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and details new revelations about an NSA unit known as the Tailored Operations Unit, or TAO, which conducts operations that enable it to gain access to user PCs and computer networks in a number of ways. One of the more elaborate ways the NSA is able to insert backdoors is by intercepting technology shipments from a vendor to a user, loading malware onto the device, then forwarding the technology to its original destination.
According to the report, TAO is also able to gain information is by exploiting Microsoft Windows crash reports sent from user PCs. Microsoft has recently taken steps to boost its own encryption efforts in a bid to improve its security in light of previous NSA exploitation disclosures.
Microsoft isn't the only U.S. tech vendor that the NSA's TAO has been able to exploit. According to the Der Spiegel report, there is a 50-page document that reads like a mail-order catalog of exploits that the agency can use to infiltrate myriad technologies from U.S.-based technology vendors.
Among the vendors named in the report as being exploitable is networking giant Cisco Systems. In a publicly released statement, Cisco Chief Security Officer John Stewart denied any knowledge of any NSA backdoor vulnerabilities in the company's equipment.
"We are deeply concerned with anything that may impact the integrity of our products or our customers’ networks and continue to seek additional information," Stewart stated. "At this time, we do not know of any new product vulnerabilities, and will continue to pursue all avenues to determine if we need to address any new issues."
Concerns about the NSA's activities in general have already had an impact on Cisco in 2013. During Cisco's first-quarter fiscal 2014 earnings call, CEO John Chambers had to respond to an analyst question about the NSA impact. At the time, Chambers indicated that the NSA spying was affecting Cisco's business efforts in emerging markets.
In recent weeks, at least one U.S. technology vendor has been publicly identified as working with the NSA to facilitate backdoor access. On Dec. 20, Reuters reported that U.S. security vendor RSA had a secret contract with the NSA to enable various forms of backdoor access.
Cisco, however, has repeatedly denied that it has directly worked with the NSA to enable unauthorized access.
"As we have stated prior, and communicated to Der Spiegel, we do not work with any government to weaken our products for exploitation, nor to implement any so-called security 'backdoors' in our products," Stewart said.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.