A scramble at Cisco exposes uncomfortable truths about U.S. cyber defense

When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange disclosed earlier this month that his anti-secrecy group had obtained CIA tools for hacking into technology products made by U.S. companies, security engineers at Cisco Systems swung into action. The Wikileaks documents described how the Central Intelligence Agency had learned more than a year ago how to exploit flaws in Cisco’s widely used Internet switches, which direct electronic traffic, to enable eavesdropping. Senior Cisco managers immediately reassigned staff from other projects to figure out how the CIA hacking tricks worked, so they could help customers patch their systems and prevent criminal hackers or spies from using the same methods, three employees told Reuters on condition of anonymity. That policy overwhelmingly emphasizes offensive cyber-security capabilities over defensive measures, these people told Reuters, even as an increasing number of U.S. organizations have been hit by hacks attributed to foreign governments. Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room in the Obama administration, said now that others were catching up to the United States in their cyber capabilities, “maybe it is time to take a pause and fully consider the ramifications of what we’re doing.” U.S. intelligence agencies blamed Russia for the hack of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election. Nation-states are also believed to be behind the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment and the 2015 breach of the U.S. Government’s Office of Personnel Management. CIA spokeswoman Heather Fritz Horniak declined to comment on the Cisco case, but said it was the agency’s “job to be innovative, cutting-edge, and the first line of defense in protecting this country from enemies abroad.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the CIA and NSA, referred questions to the White House, which declined to comment.