The operation conducted by the Chinese spies is imaginably the most brazen example of hardware hacking by a nation that came into the public eye. It came out as a division of Chinese armed forces forced Chinese manufacturers to implant microchips into the U.S aimed servers. The chips were the size of grain but had the perfect capacity to subvert the hardware they were installed on, allowing in new code like a Trojan Horse, and siphoning off data.
Apple and Amazon came across the hack via internal investigations and then reported it to U.S. authorities. Both the firms quietly removed the compromised servers from their infrastructure as there is no direct evidence that companies’ or user’s data was tampered or stolen.
However, Apple and Amazon strongly negate the story. Apple continues to claim that the story is false and stated, “On this, we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server.” Amazon is equally definitive about its finding claiming the allegations to be “untrue” that it “worked with the FBI to investigate or provide data about malicious hardware,” or it knew of “servers containing malicious chips or modifications in data centers based in China.”
The attack was allegedly executed via Supermicro, a U.S.-based company better known as Super Micro Computer Inc. It is one of the biggest suppliers of server motherboards and gives manufacturing contracts to the Chinese factories and elsewhere.
Supermicro’s motherboards are preferred for datacenters used by tech giants as well as for products like weapon systems and MRI machines.
A former U.S. intelligence official stated, “Think of Supermicro as the Microsoft of the hardware world. Attacking Supermicro motherboards is like attacking Windows. It’s like attacking the whole world.”
As per the Bloomberg, the prime target for the Chinese military was Elemental that could be accessed only through Supermicro. The publication further explained that the Elemental’s servers could be easily found in Department of Defense data centers, the onboards of Navy warships and the CIA’s drone operations. All in all, the bout affected approximately 30 U.S. companies including one major bank and government contractor.
The iPhone-maker had severed its association with Supermicro in 2016, however, Apple asserted that it was due to an irrelevant and trivial security episode. Amazon sold its Chinese infrastructure to a contender for unspecified reasons and thus distanced itself from Supermicro’s compromised servers.
Amazon in its statement to Bloomberg confirmed discovering “susceptibilities” in Supermicro’s manufactured goods. However, the company also added that the problems were software related not hardware related. Another potential customer, Facebook, also reported problems in Supermicro’s products, removing the servers from its datacenters and identifying malware in the company’s software.
Nonetheless, hardware subversions are a big prize for a nation’s intelligence outfits—NASA too was found guilty of carrying such operations. Unlike the software hacks, these hacks assure huge rewards for stolen information, however, they leave back physical trails.