I think we’ve reached peak bombshell report discussion at this point. It all started this time around with the big news from Bloomberg that China implanted spy chips into SuperMicro boards in the assembly phase. Then came the denials from Amazon and Apple and event SuperMicro. Then started the armchair quarterbacking from everyone, including TechCrunch. From bad sources to lack of technical details all the way up to the crazy conspiracy theories that someone at Bloomberg was trying to goose their quarterly bonus with a short sale or that the Chinese planted the story to cover up future hacking incidents, I think we’ve covered the entire gamut of everything that the SuperMicro story could and couldn’t be.
So what more could there be to say about this? Well, nothing about SuperMicro specifically. But there’s a lot to say about the fact that we were both oblivious and completely unsurprised about an attack on the supply chain of a manufacturer. While the story moved the stock markets pretty effectively for a few days, none of the security people I’ve talked to were shocked by the idea of someone with the power of a nation state inserting themselves into the supply chain to gain the kind of advantage needed to execute a plan of collection of data. And before you scoff, remember we’re only four years removed from the allegation that the NSA had Cisco put backdoors into IOS.
Why are we not surprised by this idea? Well, for one because security is getting much, much better at what it’s supposed to be doing. You can tell that because the attacks are getting more and more sophisticated. We’ve gone from 419 scam emails being deliberately bad to snare the lowest common denominator to phishing attacks that fool some of the best and brightest out there thanks to a combination of assets and DNS registrations that pass the initial sniff test. Criminals have had to up their game because we’re teaching people how to get better at spotting the fakes.
Likewise, technology is getting better at nabbing things before we even see them. Take the example of Forcepoint. I first found out about them at RSA this year. They have a great data loss prevention (DLP) solution that keeps you from doing silly things like emailing out Social Security Numbers or credit card information that would violate PCI standards. But they also have an AI-powered analysis engine that is constantly watching for behavioral threats. If someone does this on accident once it could just be a mistake. But a repeated pattern of behavior could indicate a serious training issue or even a malicious actor.
Forcepoint is in a category of solutions that are making the infrastructure smarter so we don’t have to be as vigilant. Sure, we’re getting much better at spotting things to don’t look right. But we also have a lot of help from our services. When Google can automatically filter spam and then tag presented messages as potentially phishing (proceed with caution), it helps me start my first read through as a skeptic. I don’t have to exhaust my vigilance for every email that comes across the wire.
The Dark Side Grows Powerful Too
Just because the infrastructure is getting smarter doesn’t mean we’re on the road to recovery. It means the bad actors are now exploring new vectors for their trade. Instead of 419 or phishing emails they’re installing malware on systems to capture keystrokes. iOS 12 now has protection from fake software keyboards that could capture information when something is trying to act as a keyboard on-screen. That’s a pretty impressive low-level hack when you think about it.
Now, let’s extrapolate the idea that the bad actors are getting smarter. They’re also contending with more data being pushed to cloud providers like Amazon and Azure. People aren’t storing data on their local devices. It’s all being pushed around in Virginia and Oregon data centers. So how do you get to that data? You can’t install bad software on a switch or even a class of switches or even a single vendor, since most companies are buying from multiple vendors now or even looking to build their own networking stacks, ala Facebook.
If you can’t compromise the equipment at the point of resale, you have to get to it before it gets into the supply chain. That’s why the SuperMicro story makes sense in most people’s heads, even if it does end up not being 100% true. By getting to the silicon manufacturer you have a entry point into anything they make. Could you imagine if this was Accton or Quanta instead of SuperMicro? If there was a chip inside every whitebox switch made in the last three years? If that chip had been scanning for data or relaying information out-of-band to a nefarious third-party? Now you see why supply chain compromises are so horrible in their potential scope.
This Is Bananas
Can it be fixed? That’s a good question that doesn’t have a clear answer. I look at it like the problem with the Cavendish banana. The Cavendish is the primary variant of the banana in the world right now. But it wasn’t always that way. The Gros Michel used to be the most popular all the way into the 1950s. It stopped because of a disease that infected the Gros Michel and caused entire crops to rot and die. That could happen because bananas are not grown through traditional reproductive methods like other crops. Instead, they are grafted from tree to tree. In a way, that makes almost all bananas clones of each other. And if a disease affects one of them, it affects them all. And there are reports that the Cavendish is starting to show signs of a fungus that could wipe them out.
How does this story about bananas relate to security? Well, if you can’t stop bananas from growing everywhere, you need to take them on at the source. And if you can get into the source, you can infect them without hope of removal. Likewise, if you can get into the supply chain and start stealing or manipulating data a low level, you don’t need to worry about all the crazy protections put in at higher layers. You’ll just bypass them all and get what you want.
I’m not sold on the Bloomberg bombshell about SuperMicro. The vehement denials from Apple and Amazon make this a more complex issue than we may be able to solve in the next couple of years. But now that the genie is out the bottle, we’re going to start seeing more and more complicated methods of attacking the merchant manufacturers at the source instead of trying to get at them further down the road. Maybe it’s malware that’s installed out-of-the-box thanks to a staging server getting compromised. Maybe it’s a hard-coded backdoor like the Xiamoi one that allowed webcams to become DDoS vectors. We can keep building bigger and better protections, but eventually we need to realize that we’re only one threat away from extinction, just like the banana.