Computing

The two tech giants and the Chinese government have refuted the allegations, made in a story that cites current and former intelligence sources.

The news: According to the report in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, spies from China forced Chinese manufacturers to insert tiny microchips into US-designed servers that were used by almost 30 US companies, including Apple and Amazon. The publication claims the tiny chips could be used to siphon off data from, or introduce malware to, the hardware they were installed on.

The background: According to the article, Apple and Amazon discovered the security issue after conducting internal investigations and informed the US government, which is still investigating the affair. They then quietly removed compromised servers. The attack reportedly targeted hardware made for Super Micro Computer, a US company that’s one of the world’s largest suppliers of server motherboards, which uses subcontractors in China and elsewhere. 

The response: Apple and Amazon have issued rebuttals to the story, as has Super Micro Computer. Apple says it never found malicious chips in its servers and never had any contact with the FBI or any other agency about such an incident. Amazon said it had uncovered some security holes in a software application provided by Super Micro, but these had been addressed before hardware was deployed.

Supply-chain risks: The story highlights the risks that are inherent in a world in which the lion’s share of electronic components used in computers and servers are manufactured in China. This has driven down costs and delivered huge benefits to consumers and businesses. But it’s also made it harder than ever to be sure that equipment can be trusted. As China invests heavily in new generations of chips, this issue will become even more pressing.

What happens next: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on ways to increase trust in components as part of its $1.5 billion Electronics Resurgence Initiative. One idea is to try to come up with chip designs that can be reverse-engineered easily to quickly spot any tampering that’s taken place. Another is to add a tiny chip that has both sensors and wireless connectivity right when a circuit board is being manufactured. The hope is that this could be used to signal any unauthorized handling of, or additions to, the component.