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Friday, 22 January 2010

When it comes to Google and China it pays to be paranoid

There is a real risk that the clash between Google and the Chinese authorities mutates into a trade war. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's statement yesterday has cranked up the temperature. It is difficult to police the internet successfully, but it is an easy task compared to  threats that come from microchips and communications systems that may have been tampered with.

In 1982, a three-kiloton explosion blew apart a natural gas pipeline in Siberia. The explosion was visible from outer space. Two decades later a leading US journalist, quoting senior secret service sources, revealed that what had taken place was a cunning plan that had been perpetrated by American security forces. The Man From Uncle had sprinkled  faulty chips and software throughout the Soviet supply chain. At a designated time they blew apart and destroyed a large part of the Soviet Union’s gas supply.  Nice work.

In September 2007,  Israel launched a successful bombing raid against  a suspected nuclear facility in Syria. Israeli planes were able to cross Syria’s borders and attack because agents had already planted a ‘kill switch’ that remotely turned off surveillance software. News of this attack was first reported in IEEE Spectrum, the respected trade magazine for electronics engineers. Over the last few days, India reported that just before Christmas it detected the first cyber attack on government computers originating from China. Last July 4th, US and South Korean government computers were put out of action following cyber attacks that again originated in China. 

As both the Israeli and Russian examples show that lethal attacks not only come from the internet, or faulty software. The real danger might come from imported chips and electronic systems. If we are looking for the cause of the next trade trade war, high tech is likely to be at the heart of it. 

Trojan Horses

Today’s integrated circuits can have 1 billion transistors, a number that will double every 18 months. To put this in context, at the rate of one transistor a second it would take 75 years for a person to check a pair of chips.  A typical cell phone has several hundred million transistors, making them difficult to check for faults. Last year about 200m smart-phones, such as the iPhone and Blackberry, were shipped. This year the number will approach 300m.  

These devices are powerful computers, but with the added twist that they are linked to the mobile phone network. Even at today’s level of sophistication it is difficult to check these devices for Trojan Horse circuits. Within  a couple of years it will be common for smartphones to have a billion or more transistors. Any foreign power hacking into the phone network has the opportunity to gain information about the time and place of individuals. It would also be possible to gain information about who that individual met and communicated with. As such, smart phones take the opportunity for information gathering and for causing havoc to a new level.

According to an essay penned by General Wesley K. Clark and Peter L. Levin, in the respected Foreign Affairs Magazine, in January 2008  the FBI reported  that 3,600 counterfeit Cisco network components were discovered inside US defence and power systems. The authors claim that as many as five per cent of chips are counterfeit.  Now ask yourself, where are most of these devices made? Those that are not made in China are often made in Taiwan. Now, imagine the potential problems we would have if Taiwan became part of the PRC. 

America says it wants to build a Smart Grid. Such a grid would be built using internet standards and use advanced IT systems. Sounds great in theory, but I hope they are able to check all parts and software because if not, the country is leaving itself wide open to attack. It's time to apply Andy Grove's dictum to politics and international affairs: only the paranoid survive.