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China used tiny chips on US computers to steal secrets

05 October 2018
China used tiny chips on US computers to steal secrets

The microchips were first discovered by Amazon, when the company had a third-party security company analyze the existing servers of Elemental Technologies, a USA based startup it was thinking about acquiring. The report says that the chips would connect to certain remote systems to receive instructions and could then do things like modify the running operating system to remove password validation, thereby opening a machine up to remote attackers.

The hack is said to have sent a "shudder through the intelligence community".

According to the report, Apple also bought a number of servers from Supermicro, a Bay Area-based server company, around the same time.

The chips, which Bloomberg said have been the subject of a top secret US government investigation starting in 2015, were used for gathering intellectual property and trade secrets from American companies and may have been introduced by a Chinese server company called Super Micro that assembled machines used in the centers. No consumer data is known to have been compromised.

The data servers were sold by Supermicro, based in San Jose, California, according to Bloomberg. The story says Amazon found the chips while investigating a potential partnership with a startup and alerted the government, though Amazon also disputes the account. AWS subjected the company to a security audit, which raised flags in the servers that Elemental customers needed to install on their networks to handle the video compression software.

The tiny chips, as small as the tip of a sharpened pencil and created to be undetectable without specialist equipment, were implanted on to the motherboards of servers on the production line in China, the report in Bloomberg Businessweek said.

The chip, discovered by an Amazon investigation three years ago, sparked a top-secret probe that is still ongoing today. The Chinese government also indirectly denied the reports findings. Apple insists the story is "wrong and misinformed", and has nothing to do with its decision to cut ties with one supplier.

We learn a few things from this statement, namely that Apple has been already asked for comments on the spy chips, and has hinted towards an earlier, much more benign incident.

Supermicro, which did not reply to requests for comment from The Post, said in its statement to Bloomberg Businessweek, "We are not aware of any investigation regarding this topic nor have we been contacted by any government agency in this regard". Representatives of Apple, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security could not be reached for comment by Reuters. Bloomberg further reports that the attack was made by a unit of the People's Liberation Army, the Chinese military. However, the report is supported by six anonymous current and former senior national security officials.

The microchips in question have been the subject of a secret USA government investigation dating back to 2015, Bloomberg said.

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