The NSA’s “Problem From Hell”
Courtesy Tom Simonite, MIT TechnologyReview
In 2011, General Michael Hayden, who had earlier been director of both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, described the idea of computer hardware with hidden “backdoors” planted by an enemy as “the problem from hell.” This month, news reports based on leaked documents said that the NSA itself has used that tactic, working with U.S. companies to insert secret backdoors into chips and other hardware to aid its surveillance efforts.
That revelation particularly concerned security experts because Hayden’s assessment is widely held to be true. Compromised hardware is difficult, and often impossible, to detect. Hardware can do things such as access data in ways invisible to the software on a computer, even security software. The possibility that computer hardware in use around the world might be littered with NSA backdoors raises the prospect that other nations’ agencies are doing the same thing, or that groups other than the NSA might find and exploit the NSA’s backdoors. Critics of the NSA say the untraceable nature of hardware flaws, and the potential for building them into many systems, also increases the risk that intelligence agencies that place them will be tempted to exceed legal restrictions on surveillance.
“Hardware is like a public good because everybody has to rely on it,” says Simha Sethumadhavan, an associate professor at Columbia University who researches ways to detect backdoors in computer chips. “If hardware is compromised in some way, you lose security in a very fundamental way.”
Despite a few allegations against various governments, there are no publicly confirmed cases of backdoors in computer hardware being deployed. However, in recent years security researchers have repeatedly demonstrated the power and stealth of compromised hardware, mostly by embedding backdoors into the firmware of PC components. One presentation at the Black Hat security conference last year showed off a way to backdoor a new PC so that even switching the hard drive won’t close the door (see “A Computer Infection That Can Never Be Cured”).