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May 12th, 2008

FBI Looks Into Counterfeit Cisco Equipment

In late February the FBI broke up a counterfeit distribution network, seizing an estimated $3.5 million (£1.75 million) worth of components manufactured in China. This two-year FBI effort, called Operation Cisco Raider, involved 15 investigations run out of nine FBI field offices.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation is taking the issue of counterfeit Cisco equipment very seriously and refer to the problem as a “critical infrastructure threat”. According to FBI, the fake Cisco routers, switches and cards were sold to the US Navy, the US Marine Corps, the US Air Force, the US Federal Aviation Administration, and even the FBI itself. Since 2007, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has funded a program called Trust in IC, which does research in this area.

Last month, researcher Samuel King demonstrated how it was possible to alter a computer chip to give attackers virtually undetectable back-door access to a computer system. King, an assistant professor in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s computer science department, has argued that by tampering with equipment, spies could open up a back door to sensitive military systems. He said the slides show that this is clearly something that has the FBI worried.

Cisco believes the counterfeiting is being done to make money. The company investigates and tests counterfeit equipment it finds and has never found a “back door” in any counterfeit hardware or software, said spokesman John Noh. “Cisco is working with law enforcement agencies around the world on this issue.”

The company monitors its channel partners and will take action, including termination of a contract, if it finds a partner selling counterfeit equipment, he said. “Cisco Brand Protection coordinates and collaborates with our sales organizations, including government sales, across the world, and it’s a very tight integration.”

The best way for channel partners and customers to avoid counterfeit products is to buy only from authorized channel partners and distributors, Noh said. They have the right to demand written proof that a seller is authorized.

The FBI doesn’t seem satisfied with this advice, however. It seems Cisco’s gold and silver partners have purchased counterfeit equipment and sold it to the government and defense contractors.

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