Backdoor in chip used by military: Blame software, not China

When researchers found a backdoor in chips used in military and industrial systems, suspicions turned quickly to China. But the real culprit?

The recent discovery by British researchers of an intentionally placed backdoor in U.S. chips used in defense and industrial systems set off a brief frenzy of finger-pointing toward China, with claims that Chinese manufacturers were prepping the chips for a series of Stuxnet-type attacks on U.S. systems.

Not quite. There has been plenty of evidence in recent years that China has conducted attacks and/or espionage via the Internet, but in this case, it’s not involved. And the backdoor in the chip apparently wasn’t malevolent, but simply the result of software complexity.

Sergei Skorobogatov, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, recently released a draft paper on research into silicon chips that was prompted by intelligence community concerns that the chips could be exploited.


Related stories:

‘Flame’ raises spyware to new levels, but who’s behind it?

Stuxnet, Duqu tip of the iceberg; more attacks on tap, researchers say


As part of the research, he discovered a backdoor built into the silicon in Microsemi/Actel ProASIC3 chips. Using a technique called Pipeline Emission Analysis, he and fellow researchers were able to extract the key to the backdoor, which would allow an attacker to disable the chip’s security, reprogram it or permanently damage it.

The chips are used in military and industrial systems such as nuclear power plants, and “this backdoor access could be turned into an advanced Stuxnet weapon to attack potentially millions of systems," Skorobogatov wrote.

And because the chips are manufactured in China for the California-based Actel, a division of Microsemi, suspicion quickly fell to the Chinese, especially after Skorobagatov’s paper began circulating on the Web and a number of news outlets ran stories linking China to the chips.

But those claims were quickly disputed, even by Skorobogatov, who told ZDNet Australia that Actel, not a Chinese manufacturer, inserted the backdoor.

"The claims about [the] Chinese being involved, was made up by someone who originally made the post at Reddit," he told ZDNet. “It is as though people have put two and two together and made four or five or six, depending on what their agenda is.”

He pointed out that their papers makes no direct claims about China’s involvement — although they note that the chips are manufactured there and emphasize the connection — and said he expects that other chips will have similar backdoors.

In fact, such backdoors are common, according to Errata Security’s Robert David Graham, whose blog post was perhaps the first to dispute the claims. Twenty percent of home routers and 50 percent of industrial control computers have backdoors, for example. However, “the cause of these backdoors isn't malicious, but a byproduct of software complexity.”

Chips embedded in systems have to be debugged before they are shipped, which requires the backdoor, Graham wrote. And because it costs too much to disable the debug feature — each change in chip design can cost millions of dollars — the chips tend to be shipped with the debugging interface enabled. That makes them vulnerable to hacking, although a hacker would have to have physical access to the chip, he wrote.

The chips can be protected with a key to the backdoor known only to the manufacturer, Graham wrote, which the chip had but which Skorobogatov was able to extract.

A chip such as the ProASIC3, a field-programmable gate array, also can be protected with 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard encryption, since it exists as a file on the drive within its system, he said.

The discovery of sophisticated malware such as Stuxnet, which disrupted uranium processing in Iran, and the recently discovered Flame, a spyware program attacking targets in Iran and elsewhere, have raised fears about attacks on industrial systems. And China has been no angel when it comes to cyber shenanigans.

But in this case, the backdoor does not appear to have been placed there as part of a nefarious plot. Although the researchers did reveal yet another potential vulnerability — and provided another demonstration of how fast news, accurate or not, travels on the Web.

 

 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.