Current issues. UK officials are fearful that China has the capability to shut down businesses, military and critical infrastructure through cyber attacks and spy equipment embedded in computer and telecommunications equipment. The Stuxnet worm is the most famous and best case example of a cyber attack on a network which wreaked devastation having easily compromised conventional software defensive systems. There have been many cases of computer hardware having backdoors, Trojans or other programs to allow an attacker to gain access or transmit confidential data to a third party. Considerable focus and expense has been invested in software computer networks and system defences to detect and eradicate such threats.
However, similar technology with antivirus or anti Trojan capability for hardware (silicon chips) is not available. The computer or network hardware underpins and runs all the software defence systems. If the hardware has a vulnerability then all the energy in defending at the software level is redundant. An effort must be made to defend and detect at the hardware level for a more comprehensive strategy.
Our findings. Claims were made by the intelligence agencies around the world, from MI5, NSA and IARPA, that silicon chips could be infected. We developed breakthrough silicon chip scanning technology to investigate these claims. We chose an American military chip that is highly secure with sophisticated encryption standard, manufactured in China. Our aim was to perform advanced code breaking and to see if there were any unexpected features on the chip. We scanned the silicon chip in an affordable time and found a previously unknown backdoor inserted by the manufacturer. 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, 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. The scale and range of possible attacks has huge implications for National Security and public infrastructure.
Key features of our technology:
scans silicon/hardware for backdoors, Trojans and unexpected behaviour
very fast result turnaround time
adaptable – scale up to include many types of chip
Further funding is needed for us to progress to testing further silicon chips and to develop better search algorithms which would allow us to detect possible spy systems or vulnerabilities in a greater range of systems.
Currently there is no economical or timely way of ascertaining if a manufacturer’s specifications have been altered during the manufacturing process (99% of chips are manufactured in China), or indeed if the specifications themselves contain a deliberately inserted potential threat.
Conclusions. It is clear that cyber attacks will increasingly be of this nature, having most impact; it is imperative that this issue is addressed as a matter of urgency. We would suggest making hardware assurance (HWA) & hardware defence (HWD), the testing of silicon chips for backdoors and Trojans, and their defence, a greater priority within the National Cyber Strategy. Until now it was not possible to perform such analysis in a timely or cost effective manner. Our technology provides a solution. A variation in this technology could be used as a backstop defence on a computer or network system where it can monitor instructions and possible reprogramming or activation of a buried spy system in a real time environment, thereby preventing Stuxnet type attacks.