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Electronic devices that are critical to everyday life and to national defense are dependent on increasingly sophisticated semiconductor integrated circuits, or “chips”. From laptop computers and tablets to aircraft flight controls – devices can run properly only if the chips they contain are free of hidden malicious circuits inserted during the design or manufacturing process.
The combination of continued chip technology advances and an unprecedented level of globalization in the semiconductor industry have created a widening set of opportunities for would-be attackers to insert malicious circuits during the chip design process that could be used to launch a hardware attack, according to brookings.edu.
With the security of Chinese-manufactured chips being called into question, the US Defense Department is considering increasing dramatically its investment in microelectronics. “If you’re right out at the pointy end of the spear, you might not want chips made in China being the foundation of your communications gear,” said Richard W. Linderman, deputy director for research and engineering in the office of the assistant secretary of defense.
According to nationaldefensemagazine.org, he said the Pentagon was not only looking for high-performance chips but trusted ones that have been manufactured in the United States.
Mary Miller, who is performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, said China’s investment in microelectronics technology is worrying “because every weapon system we have has microelectronics.”
Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, said chips manufactured by China present a risk to the United States because the country could hardwire them with malicious programs and apps that run silently in the background.
“What is it that is going into our offices, carried in our purses on our bodies? What is going into our computers, … into DoD systems?” he said. Potentially vulnerable U.S. military equipment includes everything from aircraft avionics to weapons guidance systems, he noted. Commercial-off-the-shelf items present a particular risk because many of them are manufactured in China, he added.