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China implanted tiny spy chips in servers used by Amazon, Apple

A new report from Bloomberg describes how Chinese subcontractors secretly inserted microchips into servers that wound up in data centers used by nearly 30 American companies.

  • A 2015 security test of a server sold by an American company found that someone in the supply chain had successfully embedded a tiny microchip on a motherboard.
  • The company that manufactured the compromised motherboard provides servers to hundreds of international clients, including NASA and the Department of Homeland Security.
  • U.S. officials linked the hardware attack to a People's Liberation Army unit, though it's unclear what, if anything, hackers have done or to what they have access.

The Chinese military was able to implant tiny malicious microchips on servers that made their way into data centers used by nearly 30 American companies, including Amazon and Apple, according to a new report from Bloomberg.

It's a wide-reaching and potentially ongoing attack that likely gave Chinese actors unprecedented access to sensitive data belonging to American companies, consumers, government agencies and one major bank.

The Bloomberg report describes how, in 2015, Amazon Web Services had approached a startup called Elemental Technologies to help with the expansion of its streaming video service, Amazon Prime Video. During a security test of the servers Elemental Technology sold as part of its video-compression product line, testers discovered a rice-grain-sized microchip implanted inconspicuously on one of the server's motherboards. The microchip wasn't part of the original hardware design, so its existence could only mean one thing: Someone at some point in the supply chain had surreptitiously embedded the chip.

Americans officials, some of whom had already heard whispers of China's plans to sabotage motherboards headed for the U.S., opened a top-secret and ongoing probe.

Hardware vs. software attacks

The size of the implanted microchip.

Photo: Victor Prado for Bloomberg Businessweek

It's hard to overstate how ideal it is, from the perspective of a hacker, to successfully conduct a hardware attack, which differs from a software attack in that it alters the physical components of a computer and not just its code. Joe Grand, a hardware hacker and the founder of Grand Idea Studio Inc., put it like this to Bloomberg:

"Having a well-done, nation-state-level hardware implant surface would be like witnessing a unicorn jumping over a rainbow," he said. "Hardware is just so far off the radar, it's almost treated like black magic."

Even though the hidden microchips are tiny and hold small amounts of code, they pose outsized danger because hackers working from other computers can talk to the microchips and use them to gain access to networks and manipulate a server's operating instructions, all without alerting security systems. But one downside to hardware attacks is that they leave behind a paper trail.

Tracing the attack

The servers sold by Elemental Technologies were assembled by Super Micro Inc., or Supermicro, the world's leading supplier of server motherboards whose customers include NASA and the Department of Homeland Security. Supermicro is based in California but most of its motherboards are manufactured by contractors in China.

American officials traced the supply chain of the compromised motherboards and identified four Chinese subcontractors that had been building Supermicro motherboards for two years. After monitoring the subcontractors, the officials found that the microchips had been ordered, by bribe or threats, to be implanted on the motherboards by a specialized People's Liberation Army unit.

"We've been tracking these guys for longer than we'd like to admit," one official told Bloomberg.

American companies deny knowledge of the attack

Amazon, Apple and Supermicro have all denied knowledge of the attack or of the investigation.

"It's untrue that AWS knew about a supply chain compromise, an issue with malicious chips, or hardware modifications when acquiring Elemental," Amazon wrote. Apple said that it's "never found malicious chips, 'hardware manipulations' or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server." And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Chinese government didn't acknowledge the attack, stating that "Supply chain safety in cyberspace is an issue of common concern, and China is also a victim."

Despite the denials, 17 U.S. intelligence officials and company insiders, all of whom remain anonymous, confirmed the attacks to Bloomberg. Read the full report here.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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