An FBI probe has uncovered the use of counterfeit networking kit by the US military, but subsequent investigations suggest a counterfeit ring more interested in money making - rather than espionage - was behind the scam.
Operation Cisco Raider led to the prosecution of 15 criminal cases involving the use of knock-off networking kit within US military systems, military contractors and utilities. The two-year investigation, involving the execution of 36 warrants, discovered 3,500 counterfeit Cisco network components valued at around $3.5m. Suspects in the suspected counterfeiting ring have been arrested in China, following cooperation between the US and Chinese authorities, the New York Times reports.
Possibilities that the bogus kit might have contained backdoors raised possible security concerns. However, Cisco has failed to uncover evidence to back up warnings from FBI agents, presented to a meeting of the Office of Management and Budget back in January and subsequently linked to the website Above Top Secret, that counterfeit gear may contain a secret backdoor.
"We did not find any evidence of re-engineering in the manner that was described in the FBI presentation," Cisco spokesman John Noh told the NYT, adding that people making and using fake Cisco gear are probably simply interested in turning a quick profit.
Possible espionage concerns in counterfeit hardware were underlined by research from boffins from the University of Illinois, who presented a paper in April explaining how they were able to modify a Sun Microsystems SPARC microprocessor to effectively create a hardwired backdoor capable of logging passwords or other sensitive data. The backdoor was created by altering part of the blueprints for the chip, which contains around 1.8m circuits.
A system such as this hidden in hardware would be very difficult to detect. Creating such a system would be well beyond the capabilities of common or garden hackers, but not intelligence agencies. ®