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Intel chips could let US spies inside: expert

Christopher Joye and Paul Smith (via AFR) | July 30, 2013
(UPDATED - 31 July 2013) There's a possibility that the US NSA is embedding back doors inside chips produced by Intel and AMD.

Intel chips could let US spies inside: expert
A spokesperson for Intel says there's "no basis for these highly speculative claims" that the US National Security Agency may embed "back doors" inside chips produced by Intel and AMD. Photo: Andrew De La Rue

One of Silicon Valley's most respected technology experts, Steve Blank, says he would be "surprised" if the US National Security Agency was not embedding "back doors" inside chips produced by Intel and AMD, two of the world's largest semiconductor firms, giving them the possibility to access and control machines.

The claims come after The ­Australian Financial Review revealed that computers made by Chinese firm Lenovo are banned from the "secret" and "top secret" ­networks of the intelligence and defence services of Australia, the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand because of concerns they are vulnerable to being hacked.

Internationally renowned security research engineer Jonathan Brossard, who unveiled what Forbes described as an "undetectable and incurable" permanent back door at last year's prestigious Black Hat conference, told the Financial Review that he had independently concluded that CPU back doors are "attractive attack vectors".

If correct, the allegations would raise the stakes in a growing cyber cold war, and fuel claims that US snooping leaves the Chinese in the shade.

A spokesperson for Intel however said there was "no basis for these highly speculative claims".

Mr Blank, who began his career working as a National Security Agency contractor at its Pine Gap facility, now teaches at Stanford University, writes for The Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal, and in 2013 was nominated by Forbes as one of the 30 most influential people in technology.

Mr Blank said when he learned the NSA had secured "pre-encryption stage" access to Microsoft's email products via the PRISM leaks, he recognised that "pretty much all our computers have a way for the NSA to get inside their hardware" before a user can even think about applying encryption or other defensive measures.

He said this may be why the Kremlin is returning to the use of electric typewriters. Russia's Federal Guard Service, which protects President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin communications, says it was prompted to adopt type-writers by the scale and complexity of the NSA operations leaked by Edward Snowden.

Mr Blank is an expert in the 'microprocessors' or 'chips' inside every computer, having helped start two semiconductor companies and a supercomputer firm.

He said hacking equipment was preferable for the NSA, rather than cracking codes.

"They have a proven capacity to figure out how to read messages before and after they get encrypted," Mr Blank said.

He said that up until the mid-1990s the bugs frequently found in computer microprocessors, or CPUs, could only be physically fixed by replacing the chip.


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