Earlier this morning Bloomberg reported the bombshell story that a major Chinese computer manufacturer had secretly installed a hidden “spy chip” on motherboards of computers installed into the data centers of several major US companies, including a popular consumer products company, a major cloud vendor and the US Department of Defense, allowing the Chinese government to secretly spy on them. All involved vocally deny the story, but the vulnerabilities it points out in the global supply chain that undergirds our modern digital world and the unnerving fact that so much of our lives are now mediated by devices manufactured in a single country with such a strong cyberespionage investment raises critical questions about where we go from here.
Bloomberg’s story offers a cautionary tale about how dependent our modern digital world is on just a handful of countries. While the software that runs the world’s biggest websites and data centers has strong connections to the US, much of the hardware that runs all of that software traces its roots back to China. This means that a single country has the ability to potentially compromise everything from our web-connected toasters to our cellphones to the core servers and routers that power the web itself.
Most importantly, China, like many of its peers, closely couples military exploitation of intelligence with economic exploitation, leveraging the insights it gains through its intelligence operations to further its economic ambitions. This creates an expanded target field that goes beyond traditional military collection targets towards the private sector.
In Bloomberg’s telling, the Chinese government was able to force a major computer manufacturer with a strong international customer base to install a secret “spy chip” onto its motherboards that could be used to siphon off sensitive data from deep within the highly secured and hardened data centers of major US commercial and military facilities.
With the companies involved strongly deny the charges, the basic premise is strongly plausible and reminds us just how dependent we are on China for nearly all our hardware needs. In the modern digital world, all roads lead through China.