Cisco CEO Chambers Asks Obama to Curb NSA Surveillance

The latest reports about the NSA secretly installing firmware in IT equipment will hurt U.S. tech vendors and the economy, Chambers says.

Cisco System CEO John Chambers is calling on the Obama administration to rein in government surveillance following allegations that the National Security Agency has intercepted shipments of IT gear and installed firmware into the systems.

In a letter May 18 to President Obama, Chambers said reports about the NSA putting surveillance technology into servers and networking gear—including allegedly products from Cisco—as the systems move between the manufacturer and customer will damage global confidence in the tech industry and make it more difficult for vendors to sell their wares.

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

The U.S. government's surveillance programs in connection with its ongoing anti-terrorism efforts have come under scrutiny following the release of secret NSA documents by former agency analyst Edward Snowden. In his latest book about the situation, "No Place to Hide," journalist Glenn Greenwald writes about the NSA program to put firmware into the IT systems. There is a photo that allegedly shows NSA employees with boxes of Cisco equipment.

Mark Chandler, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary at Cisco, wrote in a May 13 post on the company blog that the government has "overreached" with its surveillance program. Cisco does not work with any government—including the United States'—to alter its products in any way, and the company has worked hard to gain and maintain customers' trust in the technology, Chandler wrote.

"The tension between security and freedom has become one the most pressing issues of our day," he wrote. "Societies wracked by terror cannot be truly free, but an overreaching government can also undermine freedom."

In his letter to Obama, which was posted on the Re/Code site, Chambers called on the president to work with the tech industry to create a set of standards that enables the government to continue to protect the country while ensuring the integrity of the industry itself.

"That is why we need standards of conduct, or a new set of 'rules of the road,' to measure that appropriate safeguards and limits exist that ensure national security objectives, while at the same time meet the needs of global commerce. … Absent a new approach where industry plays a role, but in which you, Mr. President, can lead, we are concerned that our country's global technologies leadership will be impaired. Moreover, the result could be a fragmented Internet, where the promise of the next is never fully realized."

Snowden began leaking information regarding the NSA programs last year. Obama in January called for reforms in how the government gathers information, including creating more transparency regarding surveillance, annual reviews of the programs and greater oversight by the executive branch.

Journalists are asking other government officials about the reports regarding the NSA and IT equipment. During the State of the Union political talk show on May 18, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she hadn't read Greenwald's book and had just seen it for the first time moments before coming on the show. Feinstein told the host that she "can look into [the allegations]. It does not sound familiar."

Obama in December 2013 met with tech leaders who said that questions and concerns around the NSA's surveillance programs were impacting their businesses and could hurt the U.S. economy. Cisco executives reportedly told the president that allegations that the NSA was working with tech firms and secretly tapping into some data centers were hurting sales of U.S. equipment abroad.

In reporting Cisco's latest quarterly financial numbers May 14, Chambers and other executives said the company was continuing to see softness in such emerging markets as Brazil, Mexico and India, with sales falling off 13 percent over the same period last year.