Is this China’s great hard­ware hack?

The Week (US) - - News 19 -

China could be steal­ing cor­po­rate and gov­ern­ment se­crets with a tiny mi­crochip “not much big­ger than a grain of rice,” said Jor­dan Robert­son and Michael Ri­ley in Bloomberg Busi­ness­week. Ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials, those spy chips have been found on moth­er­boards sold by a U.S. com­pany called Su­per Mi­cro, and were likely placed there by the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army as the boards were be­ing as­sem­bled in Chi­nese fac­to­ries. While Su­per Mi­cro is not a house­hold name, its com­pro­mised servers—com­put­ers that man­age net­works of com­put­ers—sit at the heart of the in­ter­net. They are used by ma­jor U.S. cloud-com­put­ing firms, in­clud­ing Ap­ple and Ama­zon, as well as by the Pen­tagon and CIA. In­ves­ti­ga­tors say the tiny chips would al­low Bei­jing to spy on in­fil­trated com­puter net­works, “stealth ac­cess that spy agen­cies are will­ing to in­vest mil­lions of dol­lars and many years to get.” China has a unique ad­van­tage in ex­e­cut­ing this kind of oper­a­tion be­cause it makes most of the world’s com­puter com­po­nents. Still, en­sur­ing that doc­tored devices make it through the global sup­ply chain to their in­tended des­ti­na­tion is so dif­fi­cult that one hacker likens this at­tack to “wit­ness­ing a uni­corn jump­ing over a rain­bow.”

If this hard­ware hack is real, then it’s “a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the tech in­dus­try’s worst fears,” said Lily Hay New­man in Wired .com. But it’s un­clear if the at­tack ac­tu­ally happened. Ap­ple, Ama­zon, and Su­per Mi­cro have all vo­cif­er­ously de­nied be­ing com­pro­mised by the Chi­nese, and the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity says it has no rea­son to doubt those de­nials. What’s im­por­tant is that this hack “is ac­tu­ally plau­si­ble,” said Ni­cholas Weaver in Law­fareBlog.com. Most cir­cuit boards are filled with sup­port chips, “and the back­door chip would ap­pear to be just an­other face­less com­po­nent to all but the most de­tailed ex­am­i­na­tion.” It’s also within the power of China’s to­tal­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment to “bribe, threaten, or ca­jole” Chi­nese sub­con­trac­tors into let­ting them mod­ify the boards. Even if this al­leged at­tack turns out to be “a false alarm, it is a sober­ing wake-up call.”

So what can we do to counter the threat? asked Ian Bo­gost in TheAt­lantic.com. As long as com­puter com­po­nents can be made faster and cheaper in China than in the U.S., there’s lit­tle like­li­hood of com­pa­nies re­build­ing our off­shored semi­con­duc­tor and moth­er­board-man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries. Even devices stamped “Made in the USA,” such as Ap­ple’s Mac Pro desk­tops, use com­po­nents pro­duced in China. Rev­e­la­tions of Bei­jing’s abil­ity to ex­ploit our reliance on Chi­nese high-tech man­u­fac­tur­ing could lead Pres­i­dent Trump to in­ten­sify his trade war with China. In­ves­ti­ga­tors will likely soon con­firm whether or not this hack is real. But “it is a real crisis no mat­ter the out­come.”

A spy chip could be lurk­ing.

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