The Big HackA tiny chip that was used to infiltrate big US companies
Bloomberg Businessweek has just published in its latest issue the story of how China used a tiny chip to infiltrate America’s top companies. As to how this was accomplished, we need to take a small detour…
It started in 2015. Amazon was looking to acquire a software company Elemental Technologies, a software firm that created software for compressing massive video files and formatting them for different devices (think iPhone, iPad, Android, Laptop etc.). Elemental also supplied to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and this dovetailed nicely with Amazon’s secure offerings of AWS (Amazon Web Services) for the CIA.
While doing due diligence, AWS hired a third-party to look into the security aspects of Elemental’s software and it uncovered some troubling issues. Elementals’s product ran typically on servers built by a San Jose based company, Super Micro Computer Inc. On the server motherboards, the testers discovered a tiny chip, no more than the size of a grain of rice. This chip was not part of the original design of the motherboard. It was inserted at manufacturing time by the subcontractors of Super Micro in China.
Worse, this chip created a stealth entry for the hackers into any network that connected with these servers. Once connected any data could be lifted out of it. It must be kept in mind that hardware hacks, such as this one are much harder to design and can have devastating consequences. No wonder, US is breathing down China’s neck.
This is not new. Many chip manufacturers who fabricated their silicon in China have for long suspected that a secret piece of silicon was being added in to the die to enable such chips to “call home” when activated. This is even harder to detect as the chip manufacturers only know their design at a high-level language such as VHDL or Verilog.
So how is this going to play out? It is now evident that China has been caught by the US with its hand in the cookie jar. With Trump paranoid about November 2018 elections being handed to the Democrats (after all what goes around, comes around!) the tough talk between the two biggest economies in the world is not going to die down any time soon. Stay tuned.
 Mike Pence’s tirade against China went way beyond trade – Oct 4, 2018, Quartz
 Pence says US “will not back down” from China’s aggression in fiery speech – Oct 4, 2018, Vox.com
 Trump Threatens Tariffs on All Imports From China, Escalating Trade Feud – Sep 7, 2018, New York Times
 The Big Hack – Oct 8, 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek