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China Security IT

Backdoor Found In China-Made US Military Chip? 270

Hugh Pickens writes "Information Age reports that the Cambridge University researchers have discovered that a microprocessor used by the US military but made in China contains secret remote access capability, a secret 'backdoor' that means it can be shut off or reprogrammed without the user knowing. The 'bug' is in the actual chip itself, rather than the firmware installed on the devices that use it. This means there is no way to fix it than to replace the chip altogether. 'The discovery of a backdoor in a military grade chip raises some serious questions about hardware assurance in the semiconductor industry,' writes Cambridge University researcher Sergei Skorobogatov. 'It also raises some searching questions about the integrity of manufacturers making claims about [the] security of their products without independent testing.' The unnamed chip, which the researchers claim is widely used in military and industrial applications, is 'wide open to intellectual property theft, fraud and reverse engineering of the design to allow the introduction of a backdoor or Trojan', Does this mean that the Chinese have control of our military information infrastructure asks Rupert Goodwins? 'No: it means that one particular chip has an undocumented feature. An unfortunate feature, to be sure, to find in a secure system — but secret ways in have been built into security systems for as long as such systems have existed.'" Even though this story has been blowing-up on Twitter, there are a few caveats. The backdoor doesn't seem to have been confirmed by anyone else, Skorobogatov is a little short on details, and he is trying to sell the scanning technology used to uncover the vulnerability.
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Backdoor Found In China-Made US Military Chip?

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  • The actual article (Score:5, Informative)

    by NixieBunny ( 859050 ) on Monday May 28, 2012 @01:34PM (#40136025) Homepage
    The original article is here. []
    It refers to an Actel ProAsic3 chip, which is an FPGA with internal EEPROM to store the configuration.
  • Wait and see (Score:5, Informative)

    by 6031769 ( 829845 ) on Monday May 28, 2012 @01:35PM (#40136031) Homepage Journal

    Either the claims will be backed up by independently reproduced tests or they won't. But, given his apparent track record in this area and the obvious scrutiny this would bring, Skorobogatov must have been sure of his results before announcing this.

    Here's his publications list from his University home page, FWIW: []

  • by laing ( 303349 ) on Monday May 28, 2012 @02:08PM (#40136243)
    The back-door described in the white paper requires access to the JTAG (1149.1) interface to exploit. Most deployed systems do not provide an active external interface for JTAG. With physical access to a "secure" system based upon these parts, the techniques described in the white paper allow for a total compromise of all IP within. Without physical access, very little can be done to compromise systems based upon these parts.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2012 @02:14PM (#40136273)

    1) Read the paper
    2) This is talking about FPGAs designed by Microsemi/Actel.
    3) The article focuses on the ProAsic3 chips but says all the Microsemi/Actel chips tested had the same backdoor including but not limited to Igloo, Fusion and Smartfusion.
    4) FPGAs give JTAG access to their internals for programming and debugging but many of the access methods are proprietary and undocumented. (security through obscurity)
    5) Most FPGAs have features that attempt to prevent reverse engineering by disabling the ability to read out critical stuff.
    6) These chips have a secret passphrase (security through obscurity again) that allows you to read out the stuff that was supposed to be protected.
    7) These researchers came up with a new way of analyzing the chip (pipeline emission analysis) to discover the secret passphrase. More conventional anaylsis (differential power analysis) was not sensitive enough to reveal it.

    This sounds a lot (speculation on my part) like a deliberate backdoor put in for debug purposes, security through obscurity at it's best. It doesn't sound like something secret added by the chip fab company, although time will tell. Just as embedded controller companies have gotten into trouble putting hidden logins into their code thinking they're making the right tradeoff between convenience and security, this hardware company seems to have done the same.

    Someone forgot to tell the marketing droids though and they made up a bunch of stuff about how the h/w was super secure.

  • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) * on Monday May 28, 2012 @02:15PM (#40136279)
    Said person/company who misled you is answerable to the charge of treason. That will get them to make sure of what they are providing.
  • by Blackman-Turkey ( 1115185 ) on Monday May 28, 2012 @02:19PM (#40136305)
    No source approved [] for Microsemi (Actel) qualified chips in China. If you use non-approved sources then, well, shit happens (although how this HW backdoor would be exploited is kind of unclear).

    It seems that People's Republic of China has been misidentified with Taiwan (Republic of China).
  • by time961 ( 618278 ) on Monday May 28, 2012 @03:51PM (#40136887)
    This is a physical-access backdoor. You have to have your hands on the hardware to be able to use JTAG. It's not a "remote kill switch" driven by a magic data trigger, it's a mechanism that requires use of a special connector on the circuit board to connect to a dedicated JTAG port that is simply neither used nor accessible in anything resembling normal operation.

    That said, it's still pretty bad, because hardware does occasionally end up in the hands of unfriendlies (e.g., crashed drones). FPGAs like these are often used to run classified software radio algorithms with anti-jam and anti-interception goals, or to run classified cryptographic algorithms. If those algorithms can be extracted from otherwise-dead and disassembled equipment, that would be bad--the manufacturer's claim that the FPGA bitstream can't be extracted might be part of the system's security certification assumptions. If that claim is false, and no other counter-measures are place, that could be pretty bad.

    Surreptitiously modifying a system in place through the JTAG port is possible, but less of a threat: the adversary would have to get access to the system and then return it without anyone noticing. Also, a backdoor inserted that way would have to co-exist peacefully with all the other functions of the FPGA, a significant challenge both from an intellectual standpoint and from a size/timing standpoint--the FPGA may just not have enough spare capacity or spare cycles. They tend to be packed pretty full, 'coz they're expensive and you want to use all the capacity you have available to do clever stuff.
  • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Monday May 28, 2012 @05:36PM (#40137489)
    Sovereign Immunity. You cannot sue the government without their permission, so it's not as easy as "just file in the appropriate court" when you're suing the government itself. Yes, it is that easy for suing anyone else.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2012 @05:42PM (#40137521)

    No, the most obvious consequence of outsourcing is lower employment, depressed wages, attacks on unions and labor in general, a shrinking middle class, the cost of basic necessities eating into what's left of disposable income. This is just a secondary symptom.

    Then in this race to the bottom come the corporate apologists trying to blame the victims of these failed economic policies that have never, ever worked anywhere, plus increasingly shrill calls to "lower regulations", which is code talk for allowing corporations to internalize profits and externalize costs.

    This was entirely predictable and was in fact predicted by a great many people, but the well funded conservative noise machine conned too many into voting against their own economic self interests.

  • by walshy007 ( 906710 ) on Monday May 28, 2012 @05:45PM (#40137529)

    It's the Actel ProAsic3, it fits the redacted portions that only show the first letters and in the scanned nda doc and some quotes about claims from the manufacturer exactly match it.

  • It's a scam !! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Taco Cowboy ( 5327 ) on Tuesday May 29, 2012 @12:17AM (#40139317) Journal []

    Bogus story: no Chinese backdoor in military chip


    "Today's big news is that researchers have found proof of Chinese manufacturers putting backdoors in American chips that the military uses. This is false. While they did find a backdoor in a popular FPGA chip, there is no evidence the Chinese put it there, or even that it was intentionally malicious.

    Furthermore, the Actel ProAsic3 FPGA chip isn't fabricated in China at all !!

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