Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Security Management

10/5/2018
07:00 AM
Scott Ferguson
Scott Ferguson
News Analysis-Security Now
50%
50%

China Hacks Hardware in Spying Attempt on Apple, Amazon & Others Report

Bloomberg dropped a bombshell report this week, claiming that servers produced by Supermicro contained a specialized chip designed to allow China to spy on the industrial secrets of Apple, Amazon and others, as well as the US government.

For years, a highly specialized group of hackers in China were able to modify server hardware in an effort to spy on the industrial secrets of Apple, Amazon and other companies thanks to tiny microprocessors covertly inserted onto motherboards made by US company Supermicro, according to a blockbuster report written by Bloomberg.

If true, the report claims that this group of hackers have infected large portions of the global technology supply chain since Supermicro makes motherboards and servers for many different companies around the world. (See Unknown Document 746598.)

The Bloomberg story, The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies, finds that this hardware hack affected about 30 different companies, including Apple and Amazon.

The report describes a classic, large-scale Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) operation, where chips the size of a sharpened pencil tip were inserted during the manufacturing process of motherboards designed by Supermicro and then shipped in servers to customers. These chips were designed to look like signal conditioning couplers on the board, but once switched on, they could alert the operating system's core and accept modifications, while transmitting data to remote servers elsewhere.

A Supermicro board\r\n(Source: Wikipedia)\r\n
A Supermicro board
\r\n(Source: Wikipedia)\r\n

Even though the methods were complicated, the motive was simple: Embed the chips deep within data centers and this would allow large-scale industrial espionage and intellectual property theft to continue for years without detection.

However, it's not clear if any data was ever transferred from the companies mentioned in the report.

These types of hardware hacks, according to Bloomberg, are extremely difficult, but a specialized unit in the Chinese People's Liberation Army appears to have pulled off the feat. The fact that Supermicro's boards were assembled in China helped the process. The investigation by the US found that these chips were not part of the original hardware designs.

The story finds that the FBI and other government agencies have investigating this hacking of the global supply chain for at least three years. Part of the investigation stems from Amazon's acquisition of Elemental Technologies, which designed video compression software that eventually helped form the backbone of the company's Prime video service.

Elemental's technology also made its way into the federal government, including the Department of Defense and the CIA. In order to support the software, Elemental contracted with Supermicro to build highly-specialized motherboards for servers.

Around 2015, when Amazon was working to acquire Elemental, security experts came across the tiny chips. Amazon went on to inform US authorities.

Apple, which also used Supermicro servers in its own data centers, also discovered the chips independently, but according to Bloomberg, the company did not share as much information with authorities as Amazon did.

Amazon, Apple, Supermicro and the government of China all denied elements of the story when contacted by Bloomberg. However, the writers note that the story is based on more than a dozen interviews with government and company insiders, including six current and former national security officials who investigated the claims.

Related posts:

— Scott Ferguson is the managing editor of Light Reading and the editor of Security Now. Follow him on Twitter @sferguson_LR.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Commentary
Cyberattacks Are Tailored to Employees ... Why Isn't Security Training?
Tim Sadler, CEO and co-founder of Tessian,  6/17/2021
Edge-DRsplash-10-edge-articles
7 Powerful Cybersecurity Skills the Energy Sector Needs Most
Pam Baker, Contributing Writer,  6/22/2021
News
Microsoft Disrupts Large-Scale BEC Campaign Across Web Services
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  6/15/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
The State of Cybersecurity Incident Response
In this report learn how enterprises are building their incident response teams and processes, how they research potential compromises, how they respond to new breaches, and what tools and processes they use to remediate problems and improve their cyber defenses for the future.
Flash Poll
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2021-3500
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-24
A flaw was found in djvulibre-3.5.28 and earlier. A Stack overflow in function DJVU::DjVuDocument::get_djvu_file() via crafted djvu file may lead to application crash and other consequences.
CVE-2020-18670
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-24
Cross Site Scripting (XSS) vulneraibility in Roundcube mail .4.4 via database host and user in /installer/test.php.
CVE-2020-18671
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-24
Cross Site Scripting (XSS) vulnerability in Roundcube Mail <=1.4.4 via smtp config in /installer/test.php.
CVE-2020-4885
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-24
IBM Db2 for Linux, UNIX and Windows (includes Db2 Connect Server) 11.5 could allow a local user to access and change the configuration of Db2 due to a race condition of a symbolic link,. IBM X-Force ID: 190909.
CVE-2020-4945
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-24
IBM Db2 for Linux, UNIX and Windows (includes Db2 Connect Server) 11.5 could allow an authenticated user to overwrite arbirary files due to improper group permissions. IBM X-Force ID: 191945.