Is China spreading 'Manchurian chips?'

'Trojan Horse on a chip' alleged

We don't often discuss conspiracy theories, but this technology-focused doozy needs to be debunked before it spreads any further. It's Daily Artisan's reprint of an essay written by former FBI "spy" Robert Eringer for the Santa Barbara News-Press.

In it, Eringer alleges that the Chinese government has taken advantage of the fact that virtually every computer on the market has parts from China and has fitted each component with a "Trojan Horse on a chip," or a "Manchurian chip."

Eringer claims that while the spies-on-a-chip are not currently activated, the Chinese government can activate them at will, effectively gathering information on every US citizen with a PC as well as every US government and military computer system. To back up his story, he cites a classified DARPA report and quotes unnamed intelligence officials and industry experts, including one former intelligence officer who allegedly told him "it's the hottest topic concerning the FBI and the Pentagon".

Sounds creepy, doesn't it? A mysterious foreign power is apparently using its industrial prowess to potentially spy on Americans. It's an outrage!

But before you take a sledgehammer to your PC and revert to a Luddite chip-less existence, consider some of the many facts about the modern computer industry and the US military's technology requirements.

In the consumer PC market, there is a huge hole in Eringer's theory: many US companies have very strict hardware design and QA processes that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for manufacturers to add some sort of spying device to a processor or motherboard. As any Mac fanboy can tell you, Apple designs everything, from software to components, to their own specifications. Even the Intel chips in the current Mac lines are designed according to Apple's strict specifications, so claiming that chips could have deviated from Apple's specs without anyone noticing is preposterous.

Secondly, the idea that "all" chips are designed or manufactured in China is rubbish. This is especially true of chips that make their way into US military systems, considering the US intelligence has been concerned about the security of chips for years and there are many rules related to design and manufacturing. The NSA has a "Trusted Foundries" programme that has one layer of security in place. Add in another certification programme, Trusted Designers. DARPA's "Trust in Integrated Circuits" programme referenced in Eringer's article would add another layer of security. Lastly, as noted by the IEEE's Tech Talk blog, Trusted Foundries are by definition onshore, not offshore.

The suggestion that the Chinese have somehow managed to outwit multiple levels of industry and government-sponsored oversight to install and remotely activate "Manchurian chips" may appeal to the tin-foil hat crowd, but it should not be taken seriously. There is definitely a concern about the Chinese government gaining access to sensitive data on US networks, but to date, every compromised system has been due to holes in the software or on the networks, not the hardware.

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