Building a Backdoor

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Joel Harding


Recently a friend in another country wrote and asked me if the reason the United States suspected foreign equipment of containing a means of gaining surreptitious access to telecommunication, information or networked systems, commonly called a backdoor, was because the US routinely does it. 

I have thought long and hard about this, having experience in this field.

Now the German Chaos Club has exposed a backdoor, a bundestrojan, which was authorized by the German government. The exposure emphasizes why this type operation cannot and will not be a common.

I can state with full confidence that the US government does not and will not routinely install backdoors onto devices or software sold outside the country. But, I will posit that certain devices are probably are given extra features if it is known they are being installed in certain sensitive installations.

I know of one such operation back in 1990s, but it did not involve telecom equipment, it was in a computer peripheral device.  The other neat thing about that specific operation was that the device did not contain all the malicious code, it had to meet another specific piece of equipment in order to work.  That was about 15 years ago, imagine what can be done today?

No corporation would ever allow all its equipment or software to be ‘altered’, it does not pass the sanity check if it was ever discovered.  For years there have been rumors of a backdoor built into certain software from Israel and I believe their business has suffered as a result.  I’ve never seen proof but the rumors have persisted for over 15 years.

But, say for instance an intelligence operations professional knows that a certain computer is being purchased for the specific purpose of installation inside a sensitive facility of a bad guy.  The intelligence operations professional might make the case for installing a chip inside that computer which allows him to monitor what is going on in that specific computer. 

He would also have to speak with others before conducting that type of intelligence gathering and a “murder” board of a few people would convene to decide what is the possibility of this exploit being discovered.  Is it worth the risk?  Is it worth the possible loss of using this particular exploit again?

If it is decided the operation is worth the risk of discovery, only then will the operation be carried out. I can almost guarantee that an entire shipment of computer chips, or an entire shipment of computers or even telecommunications equipment will not be altered en masse

The chance of discovery are too high.  Instead when the information is available about, a more surgical operation would then be attempted. I would compare this with a scouting expedition, a reconnaissance or even a surveillance mission – the planning must be more than minimally detailed.

When I traveled to China last year and discussed cyber warfare and information warfare with their leaders, practitioners and academics, I often made the point that many seniors in the security community were concerned that computers made in China might possibly have nefarious or malicious contents. 

Nobody ever admitted or denied this, instead, almost universally I was countered with ‘the computers are only assembled in China’. 

To make this discussion even more amazing and confusing, the Chinese leaders shared that they feared Microsoft products, because they were certain that the US National Security Agency, or NSA, had convinced Microsoft to built in a backdoor in their products, so that NSA could exploit their computer networks at will. 

I had to laugh as the idea is fairly ludicrous, but I couldn’t deny that it has more than likely been discussed. I am certain there are many other ways to exploit US, Chinese or Russian telecommunication and information systems, I’ll gladly listen!

Cross-posted from To Inform is to Influence

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