The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Thursday published details of its new Vetting Commodity IT Software and Firmware (VET) program, which the agency said is designed to find "innovative, large-scale approaches to verifying the security and functionality of commodity IT devices -- those commercial information technology devices bought by DOD -- to ensure they are free of hidden backdoors and malicious functionality."
DARPA's new program seeks to overcome three current, related technical challenges associated with that task: identifying which capabilities in a device could be malicious; using that list as a checklist to assess if any given device actually is malicious; and then using that knowledge to allow a non-technical expert to test every instance of every device before it gets rolled out in a Department of Defense network.
"DOD relies on millions of devices to bring network access and functionality to its users," said DARPA program manager Tim Fraser in a statement. "Rigorously vetting software and firmware in each and every one of them is beyond our present capabilities, and the perception that this problem is simply unapproachable is widespread. The most significant output of the VET program will be a set of techniques, tools and demonstrations that will forever change this perception."
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The launch of DARPA's new program comes after the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in October 2012 issued a scathing report on Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE, saying that they "cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems." The committee "strongly encouraged" businesses in the United States to look elsewhere for their technology.
That recommendation was not made based on an inspection of either vendors' firmware code, but rather by reviewing the companies' business practices. Still, the report raised a larger and much-more-difficult question: Did the devices actually contain built-in backdoors?
Unfortunately, answering that type of question can be quite difficult, as it necessitates both a complete review of the code base, as well as the ability to surmise which built-in capabilities may be put to nefarious use. Notably, one independent security expert who closely studied two different models of Huawei routers noted that existing bugs in the firmware, seemingly present due to sloppy coding, would have allowed a would-be attacker to compromise the devices, irrespective of any purpose-designed backdoor functionality being present.
DARPA will host a "proposer's day" December 12 in Arlington, Va., to brief anyone who's interested in participating in its new VET program.