China not responsible for US "military chip" backdoor

By on May 31, 2012, 7:30 AM

A research paper by PhD candidate Sergei Skorobogatov at the University of Cambridge has been circulating in the media that highlights a backdoor in Microsemi/Actel ProASIC3 chips allegedly used by the US military. Many outlets have been reporting that China is likely behind the potential threat as the chips were manufactured there but as it turns out, those reports aren’t entirely accurate.

The findings were first reported in a Reddit post where it’s likely that someone there started the initial finger-pointing at China, perhaps as part of an agenda-based attack. From there the story spread like wildfire over the potential security threat that the backdoor poses.

"This backdoor has a key, which we were able to extract. 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. This particular chip is prevalent in many systems, from weapons [and] nuclear power plants to public transport. In other words, this backdoor access could be turned into an advanced Stuxnet weapon to attack potentially millions of systems," Skorobogatov said in the research paper.

While it’s true that the chips were manufactured in China, they weren’t responsible for the backdoor. Reports are now claiming that California-based Actel inserted the backdoor, not as a malicious activity but rather as a built-in debugging interface. Errata Security researcher Robert Graham says that the interface is called JTAG (named after the Joint Test Action Group that was created to test circuit boards) and is a common debugging practice. He notes that someone would need to have physical access to a chip to “exploit” it.

"Whether you call this a security feature to prevent others from hacking the chip through JTAG or a secret backdoor available only to the manufacturer, is open to interpretation," Graham said.

A question that still remains is how widespread the use of Microsemi/Actel ProASIC3 chips actually is. Contrary to Skorobogatov’s research paper, Graham says that this is not a top-secret “military” chip like most are being led to believe. He says that none of Actel’s chips are certified by the government to “hold secrets.”

Based on these recent findings, it seems that the whole thing could have been blown way out of proportion.

User Comments: 10

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Archean Archean, TechSpot Paladin, said:

Simply put, it was a perfect pretext for China haters to cause a 'storm in a teacup'.

Guest said:

I think you can't blame them for being a little worry.

gwailo247, TechSpot Chancellor, said:

In all fairness though, a point was raised. Using a third party to manufacture equipment essential for the security of our country may have bad consequences.

Archean Archean, TechSpot Paladin, said:

A 'perceived threat' (in any form) of one nation state may be a 'security necessity' for another one, so for me, it doesn't mean much if Chinese in fact do this, as I suspect many other nations do this sort of thing anyway.

gwailo247, TechSpot Chancellor, said:

A 'perceived threat' (in any form) of one nation state may be a 'security necessity' for another one, so for me, it doesn't mean much if Chinese in fact do this, as I suspect many other nations do this sort of thing anyway.

I'm sure they do. But I'm an American, so I care about threats to American security. I'm sure its completely in the security interests of China to spy on us, reverse engineer our IP and put in back doors in electronics they manufacture for us, but I'm not Chinese, so I don't view those things positively. You can't be absolutely neutral forever.

Archean Archean, TechSpot Paladin, said:

I distinctly remember reading an article about Americans putting something similar in arms/defense system they sell to others in (probably) Jane's (I'll try to find it but it was many years ago). So it is kind of evens out amongst nation states. Beside, the fact is, a rising power is always an 'existential' threat to 'dominant empire' of any given time, so .... as they say 'everything is fair in war'.

Frankly, I do not expect US to be dominant empire beyond 10/20 years from now, in fact as soon as Chinese economy becomes the largest economy (expected to be around the end of this decade) things may start to look different. Take into perspective India's rising influence (although they want them to be counter weight to Chinese, but I don't think Indians will comply to every wish of 'others' + Brazil/SA and Russians (re-emerging from economic tatters) probably will create a 'multi-polar' world.

gwailo247, TechSpot Chancellor, said:

Like I said, you have to pick a side. And since in this particular scenario I'm more likely to be negatively impacted by Chinese meddling with US defense electronics than I am to be positively impacted, so I happen to be on the side of keeping essential things out of foreign hands.

As far as your predictions go, take your pick. There are people saying that all the economies you mentioned will not be able to take the growth and fall prey to a poor social framework (especially China, where the demographic bubble is going to cause a great surplus of young men with no women and no prospects of a job in 10-20 years). Russia may keep digging up its Siberian gold, but I see a revolution there sooner or later, you're not going to be able to keep the rabble at bay with ruble airplanes forever. And lets not factor in pandemics, global internet collapse, or whatever.

Guest said:

The great joy of outsourcing is that you don't have control over what is essentially yours..

Way to go, security is compromised and you are not sure who done it..

The irony.

Guest said:

Well that settles it then...*takes off tinfoil hat*

antiproduct said:

I bet it was the Cylons!

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