Opinions and Analysis: The Big Hack: Updating National Security for the 21st Century

By: Kevin Redden, Staff Editor

Editor’s Note:  Both Apple and Amazon have apparently done in-house investigations and found no evidence of a hack; they have subsequently demanded a retraction of the story from Bloomberg.  Bloomberg has stood by its reporting and refused to retract its article.

On October 4th, 2018, Bloomberg published an alarming article alleging that the U.S. Government had fallen victim to a large-scale hack at the hands of Chinese operatives.  Their goal? Long-term access to treasured corporate secrets and government networks which house some of the nation’s most sensitive information. In 2015, Amazon became aware of an anomaly with a commonly used motherboard while vetting a Silicon Valley startup for an impending acquisition.  The anomaly came in the form of a chip, roughly the size of a grain of rice, which was attached to the motherboard after manufacturing.  The chip enabled third-party users to gain access to any computer using the motherboard, effectively opening the door to a vast array of sensitive data.  According to Bloomberg, the chip gave Chinese operatives access to data centers operated by the Department of Defense, several Navy warships, NASA, and the Department of Homeland Security in addition to private companies such as Apple and Amazon.

Like many other pieces of technology, large parts of the motherboard in question were manufactured in China.  Bloomberg reports that operatives for the Chinese government infiltrated the manufacturer’s supply chain, inserting the chip on thousands of motherboards before being shipped back to the United States for installation in government computers.  It seems that the federal government escaped with nothing more than a bruised ego as the chips were found relatively quickly and monitored for the past several years. Regardless of the consequences, one is left to wonder how this could happen to the country which spends more on defense than any other nation in the world.

A Cold Winter

Reports of espionage will undoubtedly freeze relations between the United States and China even further than they already are and could lead to an era marked by distrust and Machiavellian gamesmanship. The rate of technological adoption is at an all-time high; countries which react slowly to technological advancements risk economic and national security.  While the federal government has been proactive in updating military equipment and combat operations, it needs to take a holistic approach to modernize the nation’s defense strategy and realize that 21st Century technology is the linchpin to national security.  First and foremost, the federal government cannot afford to use motherboards, or other hardware, which is produced or manufactured outside the United States.  We have the workforce and knowledge to make hardware which can outcompete any manufacturer in the world if we can live with slightly increased costs. Kennedy did not buy ICBMs built in the U.S.S.R, so why are we buying sensitive hardware built in China?

This does not mean the federal government has to take on the responsibility of manufacturing themselves.  By implementing a policy consisting of economic incentives tied to performance measures while also communicating an unwillingness to purchase foreign hardware, the government can spur industry giants to relocate manufacturing sites within the United States.  The close geographic proximity of manufacturing and distribution centers resulting from these policies may enable both the manufacturer and the government to ensure a secure supply chain throughout the manufacturing process.  In addition to incentivizing hardware manufacturers, the United States also need to use international mechanisms to send a clear message that espionage of this sort will not be tolerated.  Bringing the international community to the table could put pressure on China and other nations with similar aspirations while legitimizing any unilateral actions the United States chooses to take.  The United States and the world is wading into the future with trepidation. More countries have become empowered to challenge the international world order which is currently in place as their technological prowess increases.  The United States cannot afford to be caught on its heels again, modernizing the way we think about defense is the first step in ensuring insuring against future hacks.

Editor’s Note:  Both Apple and Amazon have apparently done in-house investigations and found no evidence of a hack; they have subsequently demanded a retraction of the story from Bloomberg.  Bloomberg has stood by its reporting and refused to retract its article.