The Obama administration has accused China of hacking companies and Congress has questioned whether Chinese businesses tamper with telecom devices, but the National Security Agency may be using those same tactics, according to reports citing documents leaked by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The NSA obtains routers and other network devices being exported from the U.S., implants backdoor surveillance features, repackages the devices with factory seals and sends them to the international customers to tap into the networks of their users, The Guardian reports. The article cites a June 2010 report from the head of the NSA's Access and Target Development Department leaked by Snowden.
Responding to an email about the report, NSA spokeswoman Vanee' Vines would not comment “on specific, alleged intelligence-gathering activities,” but said the agency relies on the security of American-built tech devices.
“While we cannot comment on specific, alleged intelligence-gathering activities, NSA’s interest in any given technology is driven by the use of that technology by foreign intelligence targets,” Vines said. “The United States pursues its intelligence mission with care to ensure that innocent users of those same technologies are not affected.”
This alleged espionage is the kind commercial spying the House Intelligence Committee suspected was being dealt by China-based telecom Huawei. The committee investigated Huawei in 2012 in part because its CEO used to be a military technologist for the People's Liberation Army. The congressional scrutiny led the Chinese telecom to step back from the U.S. market.
Nearly a year has passed since reporter the June 2013 publication of the first story about widespread, secret NSA surveillance citing documents leaked by Snowden. This latest report in The Guardian is an excerpt from a book about the NSA disclosures called “No Place to Hide,” by Glenn Greenwald, who wrote the first news story about Snowden for the news group.
Reports citing documents leaked by Snowden also indicated the NSA has uploaded spyware on to computers to monitor both criminals and trade rivals.
The new director of the NSA, Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, promised on Monday the agency would be more transparent while it factors privacy rights into national security efforts, Reuters reports.
"The dialogue to date that we have had for much of the last nine months or so from my perspective, I wish was a little bit broader, had a little more context to it and was a little bit more balanced," Rogers said at the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit, alluding to the surveillance debate generated by Snowden.
The trouble with transparency in the spy business is that everything is “compartmented” among the people in different secret operations, so very few people – if any – at the agencies know what everyone on the payroll is doing, says Bob Baer, a former secret case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency.
While Baer suspects some of the NSA reporting during the past year may have incomplete or inaccurate sources, he adds it is hard to account for contractors on the payroll doing surveillance or data mining for agencies.
“I have rarely seen an intelligence flack out and out lying – they may not know the whole story,” Baer says. “The intelligence community is so big, and there is always somebody pushing the envelope at some level.”