[Beowulf] Hacked MBs It was only a matter of time

David Mathog mathog at caltech.edu
Thu Oct 4 09:34:19 PDT 2018

If the extra chip was added to the original design I wonder how hard it 
would be to cut it back out again?  Admittedly if this amounts to much 
more than "crush it with a pair of needlenose pliers" or "place a 
soldering iron on it for 20 seconds" it would be impractical and likely 
not economical to repair these motherboards.  Removing it with a hot air 
workstation (it must be surface mounted) would likely restore the 
motherboard to its original design, but doing so without damaging any of 
the surrounding components on a typical tightly packed motherboard might 
be very difficult.

This also suggests that manufacturers are going to have to start 
carefully auditing products coming in from overseas factories to verify 
that they have not diverged in unexpected ways.  That is going to be 
really hard because while this was actually an extra component, the 
obvious next step is to add the function to an existing chip, so the 
board would not appear externally to be any different.  To find that 
sort of change they would have to cut open the chip packages and review 
the chips in an EM.   And the counter measure would be to only sprinkle 
in a few contaminated chips instead of installing them everywhere.

On balance this seems like an excellent reason to ban the importation of 
"must be trusted" components from China.  (Makes me wonder about 
products from that new Foxconn plant in Wisconsin too.)  For once the 
Trump administration could call "national security" when implementing a 
policy like that and actually have a good case.


David Mathog
mathog at caltech.edu
Manager, Sequence Analysis Facility, Biology Division, Caltech

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