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Under pressure, Western tech firms bow to Russian demands to share cyber secrets

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW: Western technology companies, including Cisco, IBM and SAP, are acceding to demands by Moscow for access to closely guarded product security secrets, at a time when Russia has been accused of a growing number of cyber attacks on the West, a Reuters investigation has found.

Russian authorities are asking Western tech companies to allow them to review source code for security products such as firewalls, anti-virus applications and software containing encryption before permitting the products to be imported and sold in the country. The requests, which have increased since 2014, are ostensibly done to ensure foreign spy agencies have not hidden any “backdoors” that would allow them to burrow into Russian systems.

But those inspections also provide the Russians an opportunity to find vulnerabilities in the products’ source code – instructions that control the basic operations of computer equipment – current and former U.S. officials and security experts said.

While a number of U.S. firms say they are playing ball to preserve their entree to Russia’s huge tech market, at least one U.S. firm, Symantec, told Reuters it has stopped cooperating with the source code reviews over security concerns. That halt has not been previously reported.

Symantec said one of the labs inspecting its products was not independent enough from the Russian government.

U.S. officials say they have warned firms about the risks of allowing the Russians to review their products’ source code, because of fears it could be used in cyber attacks. But they say they have no legal authority to stop the practice unless the technology has restricted military applications or violates U.S. sanctions.

From their side, companies say they are under pressure to acquiesce to the demands from Russian regulators or risk being shut out of a lucrative market. The companies say they only allow Russia to review their source code in secure facilities that prevent code from being copied or altered.

The demands are being made by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which the U.S. government says took part in the cyber attacks on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and the 2014 hack of 500 million Yahoo email accounts. The FSB, which has denied involvement in both the election and Yahoo hacks, doubles as a regulator charged with approving the sale of sophisticated technology products in Russia.

The reviews are also conducted by the Federal Service for Technical and Export Control (FSTEC), a Russian defense agency tasked with countering cyber espionage and protecting state secrets. Records published by FSTEC and reviewed by Reuters show that from 1996 to 2013, it conducted source code reviews as part of approvals for 13 technology products from Western companies. In the past three years alone it carried out 28 reviews.

A Kremlin spokesman referred all questions to the FSB. The FSB did not respond to requests for comment. FSTEC said in a statement that its reviews were in line with international practice. The U.S. State Department declined to comment.

Moscow’s source code requests have mushroomed in scope since U.S.-Russia relations went into a tailspin following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, according to eight current and former U.S. officials, four company executives, three U.S. trade attorneys and Russian regulatory documents.

In addition to IBM, Cisco and Germany’s SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co and McAfee have also allowed Russia to conduct source code reviews of their products, according to people familiar with the companies’ interactions with Moscow and Russian regulatory records.

Until now, little has been known about that regulatory review process outside of the industry. The FSTEC documents and interviews with those involved in the reviews provide a rare window into the tense push-and-pull between technology companies and governments in an era of mounting alarm about hacking.

Roszel Thomsen, an attorney who helps U.S. tech companies navigate Russia import laws, said the firms must balance the dangers of revealing source code to Russian security services against possible lost sales.

“Some companies do refuse,” he said. “Others look at the potential market and take the risk.”

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