A computer chip manufactured in China that is used in US military equipment contains a secret “backdoor” that could severely compromise security, a team of scientists from Cambridge University says.
In a recent report, Sergei Skorobogatov, a senior research associate at the University of Cambridge’s computer laboratory, wrote that his team had developed silicon chip scanning technology that allowed them to investigate claims by various intelligence services worldwide that silicon chips could be infected by malware, such as Stuxnet, that can allow a third party to gain access to or transmit confidential data.
Unlike software, no means currently exist to protect hardware against viruses or Trojan horses, a critical vulnerability for defense systems that are hardware-reliant.
For its research, Skorobogatov’s team selected a chip that was manufactured in China and is used by the US military. The chip, which is prevalent in many systems used in weapons, nuclear power plants and public transport, was considered highly secure and used sophisticated encryption standards.
After performing advanced code breaking, the team found a backdoor they say had been inserted by the manufacturer.
“This backdoor has a key, which we were able to extract,” Skorobogatov wrote on his Web site, discussing what he referred to as hardware assurance. “If you use this key you can disable the chip or reprogram it at will, even if locked by the user with their own key.”
The backdoor access could be turned into an advanced Stuxnet weapon to attack potentially millions of systems, he wrote, adding that the scale and range of the attacks that could be launched using it had huge implications for national security and public infrastructure.
The Cambridge team did not specify the Chinese manufacturer, nor did it mention whether this was an isolated case or signs of a wider trend, according to the online-based The Next Web.
Reports last year claimed that the US Navy had purchased 59,000 microchips in 2010 for use in missiles and transponders that turned out to be counterfeits from China. According to Wired magazine, the fake chips also contained “backdoors” that could have allowed a third party to remotely disable them at any time, severely compromising homing systems and friend-or-foe signals used by aircraft.
The discovery prompted the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency to seek ways to scan hardware — including computer chips — for the presence of malware installed during the production process.