The storm of controversy has yet to subside following the Oct. 4 Bloomberg Businessweek blockbuster story that San Jose, California-based Super Micro Computer Inc.’s made-in-China computer motherboards were secretly “hacked” by the People’s Liberation Army over a two-year period. Another episode in the China cyberwar saga.
This particular hack potentially enabled back-door access to the computers of companies such as Apple and Amazon and U.S. government agencies including the Department of Defense, CIA, NSA, and the Navy.
Immediate security implications for the United States and many other countries are enormous, so it’s not surprising that, weeks later, denials of the report far exceed affirmations.
The day the story was released, Super Micro, Amazon, and Apple denied being affected, and on Oct. 18 Apple CEO Tim Cook asked Bloomberg to retract its story.
Officials from the NSA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security have expressed doubts.
During a U.S. Senate hearing Oct. 9, Kirstjen Nielsen, DHS director, said while DHS did not have evidence to support Bloomberg’s contention of computer supply chain interference, she also said, “It is a very real and emerging threat that we are very concerned about.”
Also on Oct. 9, Bloomberg reported that “a major U.S. telecommunications company” had removed Super Micro computer hardware deemed “manipulated” by China, citing Yossi Appleboum, cybersecurity expert and former Israeli Army intelligence officer.
He also told Bloomberg that he has seen similar Chinese manipulations of computer hardware made by various Chinese vendors, noting there are “countless” points in the Chinese supply chain where manipulations can be introduced.
China Wants to Control Global Cyberspace
This controversy will continue, but we can pause to consider its first major message: China is engaged in a war to control global cyberspace.
This is a vital part of its driving ambition to eclipse the United States as the principle global military power and to impose military control over the Earth-Moon system. Furthermore, until the United States can revive Cold War-era-like cooperation among the democratic allies which protects their military dual-use technology and fights back against China’s cyber war, China increasingly will pervert and weaponize the life-enhancing potential offered by digital technologies in its effort to contain and eventually dominate us.
A stark lesson in the pitfalls of cyber-hubris was offered by former President Bill Clinton, who in an October 2000 speech argued for China to be allowed to join the World Trade Organization. He stated the internet would “change China,” suggesting it would weaken Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control.
Today, CCP totalitarianism is enhanced by its control over its internet Great Wall, which isolates Chinese from the global web; allows increasingly intimate control over them via “smart cities” that record their physical movement; and enables future “social credit scores” that will grade their online support for the CCP in order to determine access to better cities, education, and jobs.
Could China someday assign similar social credit scores to everybody who works or plays online?
The China-Super Micro Connection
To do so, China would require the kind of global backdoor access to computer systems said to have been provided by the Chinese contractors making the hardware for Super Micro.
This past January, it was reported that for five years the new African Union headquarters built by China also has been hacked to send confidential information back to China.
Governments increasingly ban or discourage relying on Chinese telecommunication equipment vendors like Huawei or ZTE, while since October 2016 the Pentagon has warned against using Chinese-made Lenovo computers.
Add to this China’s pervasive 24-7 mining of global computer networks, and its specific attacks against companies and databases to amass military, economic, political, and personal data.
This becomes deadly serious considering that in late 2015 the People’s Liberation Army created a new military service, the Strategic Support Force, to ensure China wins in new battlefields dominated by cyber warfare, databases, electronic warfare, energy weapons, and space warfare.
If China can stealthily “manipulate” their computer hardware, it might also be able to turn against us our future unmanned weapons, made deadlier with advances in artificial intelligence.
Thinking of waging a war against an interest of China’s? It may not be unreasonable to expect your officers, soldiers, and their families to receive dissuasive robocalls from China as the opening move in a much more destructive cyber assault. Imagine how China might seek to manipulate your future “brain chip,” especially if it was made in China.
Consequently, as the Trump administration has sought to illustrate in an Oct. 5 report on the U.S. manufacturing and defense industrial base, the United States must invest in reviving domestic American sources for military-critical industries, including those feeding our electronic infrastructure.
Washington also must go on the offensive. It should seek to revive proven institutions like the former Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls to better control China’s access to Western military technology.
There is also a need for a multilateral cyber and information campaign that exploits China’s cyber weaknesses. For example, obtaining the ability to manipulate the internet social credit scores of 300 million Chinese could turn up the political heat on the 90 million members of the CCP.