China’s state security apparatus is one of the most intrusive and heavy-handed in the world; less brazenly insane than Saudi Arabia’s, less openly brutal than Putin’s bargain-basement KGB operation, but still a terrifying megalithic tyranny. So it would ideally be best if they didn’t have a door into the inner workings of major US corporations and branches of the government.
The thing is, they probably do.
Here’s how it worked: China doesn’t exactly have a killer tech industry in the sense of producing superstar tech thinkers and new tech products. Its social media and ecommerce big hitters are reverse-engineered Western items white-labelled (and heavily spied-on).
But what they do have is all the factories. Getting China out of a tech company’s supply chain is like getting the smell of booze off your breath when you’re 15. However much you think you’ve done enough to mask it, you probably haven’t succeeded.
So most US tech companies are basically running on partially Chinese-made software.
Rather than sophisticated hacking, or hiring an army of trolls, China used what it has to get what it wants and simply built access in at the hardware level.
Bloomberg says Amazon was testing some of the servers it bought from Supermicro, a San Jose-based company that sells motherboards (the part of a physical computer where data is routed to other components like processing and memory) when it found something interesting, in the Chinese sense:
Nested on the servers’ motherboards, the testers found a tiny microchip, not much bigger than a grain of rice, that wasn’t part of the boards’ original design. Amazon reported the discovery to U.S. authorities, sending a shudder through the intelligence community. Elemental’s servers could be found in Department of Defense data centers, the CIA’s drone operations, and the onboard networks of Navy warships. And Elemental was just one of hundreds of Supermicro customers.
With global supply chains and regional tribalism and nationalism colliding, we’re going to see a whole lot more of this in the future. (There’s probably a ton of it going on already that we don’t know about.)
‘The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies,’ Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley/Bloomberg