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Counterfeit chips raise hacking, terror threats

Posted at 2:15 PM on April 8, 2008 by Jon Gordon

Foreign governments and manufacturers working together could sabotage American computers and computer networks by selling hardware implanted with malicious processors, according to a story in the April issue of Popular Mechanics.

Security experts warn that as supply chains become more global and more opaque, no one can be sure what parts are going into the computers that run, well, everything--from air traffic control towers to banks to weapons systems. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff raised the issue recently at a briefing attended by Popular Mechanics and others. "Increasingly when you buy computers they have components that originate ... all around the world," he said. "We need to look at ... how we assure that people are not embedding in very small components ... that can be triggered remotely."

The scenario seems unlikely, but possible. Security expert Bruce Schneier does a pretty good job of raising doubt about the threat of counterfeit chips:

"It's certainly possible for the world's major espionage services to secretly plant vulnerabilities in our microprocessors, but the threat is overblown," says Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of the data security company BT Counterpane. "Why would anyone go through the effort and take the risk, when there are thousands of vulnerabilities in our computers, networks and operating systems waiting to be discovered with only a few hours' work?"

Tomorrow on Future Tense, I'll talk with Glenn Derene of Popular Mechanics about his story.