Has the NSA been secretly planting interception tools in US routers and servers?

13 May 2014

Despite the US government raising a storm over the suggestion that spyware may be planted in routers and servers made by Chinese manufacturers, claims have arisen that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been planting interception tools in US internet hardware.

Chinese manufacturers like ZTE and Huawei have in recent years had to face a trade embargo due to scaremongering and conspiracy theories that hardware exported to the US from China could be compromised by spyware.

However, The Guardian reported that the Americans have been doing precisely the same thing they accuse the Chinese of doing. The findings emerged in a new book by Glenn Greenwald ‘No Place to Hide’ which recounts how he was the journalist chosen to reveal Edward Snowden’s defection from the US with US surveillance secrets.

A House Intelligence Committee headed by Mike Rogers claimed that ZTE and Huawei were enabling Chinese state surveillance despite having no actual evidence to back this up.

The upshot of this was that Huawei decided to abandon the US market altogether. The presents the spectre of potential future problems for Chinese manufacturers of smartphone devices like Lenovo (which just bought Motorola Mobility from Google) and Xiaomi, a future competitor to Samsung and Apple, in the vital US market.

Factory seals

A June 2010 report from the head of the NSA’s Access and Target Development indicated how the US routinely intercepted routers, servers and other computer network devices being exported from the US to international destinations.

It is claimed that the NSA implants backdoor surveillance tools before repackaging the devices with a factory seal.

“It is quite possible that Chinese firms are implanting surveillance mechanisms in their network devices. But the US is certainly doing the same,” The Guardian noted.

“Warning the world about Chinese surveillance could have been one of the motives behind the US government’s claims that Chinese devices cannot be trusted. But an equally important motive seems to have been preventing Chinese devices from supplanting American-made ones, which would have limited the NSA’s own reach.

“In other words, Chinese routers and servers represent not only economic competition but also surveillance competition.”

Network servers image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years