Cisco CEO asks Obama to curtail surveillance, according to reports

This post has been updated.

Cisco chief executive John Chambers has sent a letter to President Obama calling for rules ensuring that both the needs of national security and his IT firm's product integrity are met, according to reports.

The Financial Times and Re/code are reporting that Chambers sent a letter dated May 15 to Obama, warning that confidence in an open Internet is being "eroded by revelations of governments' surveillance" and asking him to create new standards of conduct about how the government collects data.

Ars Technica reported last week that a document included in National Security Agency files released with Glenn Greenwald's new book "No Place to Hide" describes how the NSA intercepts servers and networking gear and covertly installs firmware on them before they are shipped out. There is a photo purporting to show NSA employees opening Cisco boxes.

"We ship our products from locations inside, as well as outside the United States, and if these allegations are true, these actions will undermine confidence in our industry and in the ability of technology companies to deliver products globally,"  the letter, which was obtained by Re/code, reads.

Chambers said the allegations undermine trust that has already been eroded by the NSA revelations.

"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. That is why we need standards of conduct, or a new set of 'rules of the road' to ensure that appropriate safeguards and limits exist that serve national security objectives, while at the same time meet the needs of global commerce. We understand the real and significant threats that exist in this world, but we must also respect the industry's relationship of trust with our customers," he wrote.

"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 technological leadership will be impaired. Moreover, the result could be a fragmented Internet, where the promise of the next Internet is never fully realized," the letter states.

A Cisco spokesman confirmed that Chambers wrote o Obama and that the letter cited by Re/code is authentic. "We are letting the letter speak for itself," the spokesman, John Earnhardt, wrote in an e-mail.

NSC spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden did not comment on the letter.

In a January speech, Obama called for a narrowing of the government's access to phone records and addressed a number of reforms, including a directive that strengthens executive branch oversight of intelligence gathering,  procedures to provide greater transparency on surveillance activities and a new annual review by the director of national intelligence and attorney general of FISA court opinions for possible declassification.

Hayden said the review process of the nation's intelligence gathering system drew on input from stakeholders including Congress and the technology community.

"We believe that these reforms help chart a path forward that should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, while preserving important tools that keep us safe, and address significant questions that have been raised overseas," Hayden said in an e-mail.

In a May 13 blog post, Cisco general counsel Mark Chandler said the company does "not work with any government, including the United States Government, to weaken our products. When we learn of a security vulnerability, we respond by validating it, informing our customers, and fixing it." 

Chandler said Internet security is crucial; the company, he said, wants governments to detect and disrupt terrorist actions before anyone is harmed. "We also want to live in countries that respect their citizens' basic human rights. The tension between security and freedom has become one the most pressing issues of our day. Societies wracked by terror cannot be truly free, but an overreaching government can also undermine freedom," he wrote.

Chandler said he agreed with the general counsel of IBM, Bob Weber, who blogged in March that governments need to restore the trust of companies and reject "short-sighted" policies that don't actually strengthen security. Among other things, Weber said the U.S. government should install new transparency provisions for data.

Rules must be codified, Chandler said, in order to strengthen the Internet.

Leaders of technology companies had a pointed meeting with Obama in December, telling him they want to know exactly how data is being collected overseas, pressing the need for transparency in how data is collected and asking for limits on surveillance. They also told Obama that the revelations of spying were damaging the reputation of their companies, something that could have ramifications for the U.S. economy. Cisco said customers in foreign markets were loath to buy American products after the NSA spying revelations.

In March, another group of executives said the NSA revelations could imperil the U.S.  technology industry.

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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