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Report: In Huge Hack, Chinese Manufacturer Sneaks Backdoors Onto Motherboards

If true, the attack using Supermicro motherboards could be the most comprehensive cyber breach in history.

According to a new article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, manufacturing plants in China implanted tiny network monitoring and control chips on motherboards made for U.S. manufacturer Supermicro. Supermicro motherboards are commonly used in white-box servers, including those purchased for data center use by companies like Amazon and Apple.

The article says that the chips were discovered during a due-diligence security survey conducted on computers manufactured by Elemental, a company making systems for high-speed data streaming. Worse yet, according to Bloomberg, "Elemental’s servers could be found in Department of Defense data centers, the CIA’s drone operations, and the onboard networks of Navy warships. And Elemental was just one of hundreds of Supermicro customers."

Security researchers quoted in the piece say that the purpose of the chips is to change the operating system core so that it will accept externally sourced changes, opening a backdoor into the system that can be used for a variety of purposes. Amazon, Apple, and Supermicro have all denied the details of the article, though Bloomberg is standing behind its reporting and says that critical details have been corroborated by current and former government employees.

In a statement to Dark Reading, Joseph Carson, chief security scientist at Thycotic, said: "We are one step away from a major cyber conflict or retaliation that could result in serious implications. However, what is clear is that it is a government behind this cyber espionage and I believe it is compromised employees with privileged access that are acting as malicious insiders selecting specific targets so the supply chain has been victim of being compromised. The motive will not be clear until exact details of the hardware chip is reversed to know what it is capable of and who are the victims since no one is owning up from any of the Supermicro’s customers."

Dark Reading will continue to follow this story as it develops.

For more, read here

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About the Author(s)

Curtis Franklin, Principal Analyst, Omdia

Senior Analyst, Omdia

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Analyst at Omdia, focusing on enterprise security management. Previously, he was senior editor of Dark Reading, editor of Light Reading's Security Now, and executive editor, technology, at InformationWeek, where he was also executive producer of InformationWeek's online radio and podcast episodes

Curtis has been writing about technologies and products in computing and networking since the early 1980s. He has been on staff and contributed to technology-industry publications including BYTE, ComputerWorld, CEO, Enterprise Efficiency, ChannelWeb, Network Computing, InfoWorld, PCWorld, Dark Reading, and ITWorld.com on subjects ranging from mobile enterprise computing to enterprise security and wireless networking.

Curtis is the author of thousands of articles, the co-author of five books, and has been a frequent speaker at computer and networking industry conferences across North America and Europe. His most recent books, Cloud Computing: Technologies and Strategies of the Ubiquitous Data Center, and Securing the Cloud: Security Strategies for the Ubiquitous Data Center, with co-author Brian Chee, are published by Taylor and Francis.

When he's not writing, Curtis is a painter, photographer, cook, and multi-instrumentalist musician. He is active in running, amateur radio (KG4GWA), the MakerFX maker space in Orlando, FL, and is a certified Florida Master Naturalist.

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