Sino-Trojan Microchip, Or US Cyber Gulf of Tonkin Ploy?

A very small chip is hijacking the headlines, and incurring very big ramifications. News and allegation of microchips, the size of a pencil tip, that have been intentionally implanted in Chinese manufactured circuit boards for information espionage is causing dire concerns. But, is this for real? Or just a fabrication with political intent, and what will be the repercussions on both sides of the true and false spectrum?

It’s being called “The Big Hack”, “The Holy Grail of Hacking”, some are calling it “God Mode Hacking”, while others see it as fake news and propaganda to justify further US antagonism against China. The Bloomberg report, “The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies” portrays a classic Cold War-esque plot where the word spies pops up casually, and state-sponsored espionage is an established truth.


Within the fourth paragraph of the report, China was identified as the spy microchip’s country of origin. However, the remaining forty-something paragraphs don’t point out what exactly the Chinese government is doing with the siphoned data.

The report cites that thirty US companies have been infiltrated by Chinese spies via the microchips that act as a physical backdoor for discrete information leaking and letting in cyber intruders, including Amazon and Apple. The latter two companies came out with statements denying that they’ve been hacked, though.


According to the report contractors in China assembled products for Supermicro, a world leader in supplying server motherboards who makes hardware for Elemental, a video compression software company. In 2015, Elemental was acquired by Amazon to support its own video streaming business. Elemental has been used to stream the Olympic games, communicate with the International Space Station, and render Drone footage for the CIA. The magnitude of how serious a hardware breach involved here is made evident.

However, so far, there’s just the one chip on display by Bloomberg on the internet that supposedly constitutes as physical evidence. And all the sources that the report uses for reference as individuals familiar with the government’s investigation aren’t names, of course.


Let’s go along and make the assumption that what’s in the Bloomberg report is legit. This would most likely mean that the US would have justified cause for banning Chinese manufactured information and communications products from getting anywhere near government data, banking, or any information that the US government deem as sensitive. The US government may even feel they need to retaliate by banning whole sectors of trade with China altogether. And if, other nations follow suit that would mean chaos for the global markets. According to Statista, China produces the majority of the world’s personal computers for over a decade, and 90% of it in 2011 according to a chart here.


But, let’s say the Bloomberg report is bogus. This scenario wouldn’t make sense if Bloomberg hasn’t been led on to believe there’s substantial proof, and the extent of conspiracy needed to dupe one of the most established news agency in the world would mean government level involvement. It’s not something that is unheard of, though. In the time of war, or when a state feels threatened enough, governments have demonstrated throughout history they are quite capable of making things up and lie to manipulate public sentiments. A fabricated accusation on such a scale means that a very capable fraction in US government believe that China is a threat that urgently needs to be diminished.


In either case, the allegation of the microchip will become a major issue for global politics and trade. It brings into the discourse of national security the need to secure the production of hardware for information and communications technology. It’s almost inevitable that in an age so dominated by data and information, that conflicts will rise from the same stream that has furtiled global progress. We may see a regression in the world’s information and communications integration. From this debacle, nations might want to secure the production and manufacturing of their ICT by the state monopoly.


It’s like when there’s a group of eight years old sitting together, then Timmy says, “Sean farted!”, and all the other kids step away, closing their nose, and says “eww”, without even needing a whiff of a stench.

Even, if China didn’t implant the microchip, who’s to say some other country won’t do so in the future, or even now? The production logistic pool of trust is being soiled, so why wait to figure out who actually did it before getting out of the pool?


Let’s hope that such conjectures remain in the realm of a mischievous exercise of the imagination, and that something smaller than a grain of Jasmine rice will not undo the big picture of global trust and cooperation.