18 October 2008. Thanks to Robert Eringer.
And now the Manchurian microchip
October 18, 2008 7:13 AM
The geniuses at Homeland Security who brought you hare-brained procedures
at airports (which inconvenience travelers without snagging terrorists) have
decreed that October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month. This means
The Investigator -- at the risk of compromising national insecurities --
would be remiss not to make you aware of the hottest topic in U.S.
counterintelligence circles: rogue microchips. This threat emanates from
China (PRC) -- and it is hugely significant.
The myth: Chinese intelligence services have concealed a microchip in every
computer everywhere, programmed to "call home" if and when activated.
The reality: It may actually be true.
All computers on the market today -- be they Dell, Toshiba, Sony, Apple or
especially IBM -- are assembled with components manufactured inside the PRC.
Each component produced by the Chinese, according to a reliable source within
the intelligence community, is secretly equipped with a hidden microchip
that can be activated any time by China's military intelligence services,
"It is there, deep inside your computer, if they decide to call it up," the
security chief of a multinational corporation told The Investigator. "It
is capable of providing Chinese intelligence with everything stored on your
system -- on everyone's system -- from e-mail to documents. I call it Call
Home Technology. It doesn't mean to say they're sucking data from everyone's
computer today, it means the Chinese think ahead -- and they now have the
potential to do it when it suits their purposes."
Discussed theoretically in high-tech security circles as "Trojan Horse on
a Chip" or "The Manchurian Chip," Call Home Technology came to light after
the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a security
program in December 2007 called Trust in Integrated Circuits. DARPA awarded
almost $25 million in contracts to six companies and university research
labs to test foreign-made microchips for hardware Trojans, back doors and
kill switches -- techie-speak for bugs and gremlins -- with a view toward
Raytheon, a defense contractor, was granted almost half of these funds for
hardware and software testing.
Its findings, which are classified, have apparently sent shockwaves through
the counterintelligence community.
"It is the hottest topic concerning the FBI and the Pentagon," a retired
intelligence official told The Investigator. "They don't know quite what
to do about it. The Chinese have even been able to hack into the computer
system that handles our Intercontinental Ballistic Missile system."
Another senior intelligence source told The Investigator, "Our military is
aware of this and has had to take some protective measures. The problem includes
defective chips that don't reach military specs -- as well as probable
A little context: In 2005 the Lenovo Group in China paid $1.75 billion for
IBM's PC unit, even though that unit had lost $965 million the previous four
years. Three congressmen, including the chairman of the House Armed Services
Committee, tried to block this sale because of national security concerns,
to no avail. (The PRC embassy in Washington, D.C., maintains a large lobbying
presence to influence congressmen and their staffs through direct contact.)
In June 2007, a Pentagon computer network utilized by the U.S. defense
secretary's office was hacked into -- and traced directly back to the Chinese
A report presented to Congress late last year characterized PRC espionage
as "the single greatest risk to the security of American technologies." Almost
simultaneously, Jonathan Evans, director-general of MI5, Britain's domestic
security and counterintelligence service, sent a confidential letter to CEOs
and security chiefs at 300 UK companies to warn that they were under attack
by "Chinese state organizations" whose purpose, said Mr. Evans, was to defeat
their computer security systems and steal confidential commercial
The Chinese had specifically targeted Rolls-Royce and Shell Oil.
The key to unlocking computer secrets through rogue microchips is uncovering
(or stealing) source codes, without which such microchips would be useless.
This is why Chinese espionage is so heavily focused upon the U.S. computer
Four main computer operating systems exist. Two of them, Unix and Linux,
utilize open-source codes. Apple's operating system is Unix-based.
Which leaves only Microsoft as the source code worth cracking. But in early
2004, Microsoft announced that its security had been breached and that its
source code was "lost or stolen."
"As technology evolves, each new program has a new source code," a computer
forensics expert told The Investigator. "So the Chinese would need ongoing
access to new Microsoft source codes for maintaining their ability to activate
any microchips they may have installed, along with the expertise to utilize
new hardware technology."
No surprise then that the FBI expends much of its counterintelligence resources
these days on Chinese high-tech espionage within the United States. Timothy
Bereznay, while still serving as assistant director of the FBI's
Counterintelligence Division, told USA Today, "Foreign collectors don't wait
until something is classified -- they're targeting it at the research and
development stage." Mr. Bereznay now heads Raytheon's Intelligence and
Information Systems division.
The PRC's intelligence services use tourists, exchange students and trade
show attendees to gather strategic data, mostly from open sources. They have
also created over 3,500 front companies in the United States -- including
several based in Palo Alto to focus on computer technology.
Back in 2005, when the Chinese espionage problem was thought to be focused
on military technology, then-FBI counterintelligence operations chief Dave
Szady said, "I think the problem is huge, and it's something we're just getting
our arms around." Little did he know just how huge, as it currently applies
to computer network security.
The FBI is reported to have arrested more than 25 Chinese nationals and
Chinese-Americans on suspicion of conspiracy to commit espionage between
2004 and 2006. The Investigator endeavored to update this figure, but was
told by FBI spokesman William Carter, "We do not track cases by ethnicity."
Excuse us for asking. We may be losing secrets, but at least the dignity
of our political correctness remains intact.
Oh, and Homeland Security snagged comic icon Jerry Lewis, 82, trying to board
a plane in Las Vegas with a gun -- no joke.
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