Counterfeit Chips

November 13, 2011

For some time, officials in the US defense establishment have been concerned about the possibility of hacked hardware making its way into defense systems, like pilotless and stealth aircraft, or anti-missile systems.  As is the case with civilian technology, many of the components for these systems are manufactured overseas, and the possibility of malfunctioning parts, or even the introduction of a “trojan horse“, is of considerable concern.

An article  this week in the Washington Post reports that bogus parts are already making their way into defense equipment.

U.S. officials say a problem that has long plagued luxury handbag makers such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton is now afflicting the Pentagon’s high-end weapons systems: cheap Chinese counterfeits.

A months-long congressional probe found at least 1,800 cases of counterfeit electronics in U.S. weapons, with the total number of suspect parts exceeding 1 million.

These parts do not appear to be maliciously designed; rather, they are used components salvaged from old equipment, and repackaged as new.  An investigation conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee found that most of the dodgy parts seem to be of Chinese origin, where they are “produced” under less than ideal conditions.

Fake electronic parts often are produced in China by burning raw material off old circuit boards, washing the components in sometimes-polluted rivers and drying them on city sidewalks, Senate investigators said.

One suggestion has been made:  to make the US contractors supplying the systems responsible for ensuring that counterfeit parts are not used.  I am more than a little bit surprised that this is not already the case.

[Senators] McCain and Levin said they intend to use the 2012 Defense Authorization Act to modify acquisition provisions so that the onus is on contractors to pay for replacing such parts, with the hope that they will adopt stricter policies with their suppliers.

Just as an ordinary consumer, I would expect the vendor to be responsible for failure of a PC I bought, if it were due to defective or bogus parts.  I’m not sure why this should even be an issue.

Another article, on the “Danger Room” blog at Wired, reports that the problem is affecting the US Missle Defense Agency, where seven incidents involving bad parts have occurred over the last five years.

In one case, 1,700 supposedly-new memory parts from an “unauthorized distributor” showed signs of previous use, prompting the Missile Defense Agency to have to call for almost 800 parts to be stripped from the assembled hardware. In a stockroom sweep, 67 frequency synthesizer parts had been found to have been “re-marked and falsely sold as new parts.”

Suspect parts have also been found in a number of aircraft, including Lockheed Martin’s C-130J transport plane and Boeing’s  P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft

Members of the Senate committee have pledged to toughen the rules governing the acquisition process; however, I am afraid that they may underestimate the scope of the job.

[Senator] Levin vowed to push contractors to control their supply chain more tightly. He also said he would call for inspections of electronics shipments at the border — in a similar way to how “vegetables and dairy products” are examined.

I actually hope that the inspection might be a bit more careful than that currently applied to “vegetables and dairy products”.  We have seen before that food products and medicines have been contaminated by ingredients from unscrupulous foreign suppliers.   In some cases, the manufacturers do not know where the bad ingredients originated.  The pursuit of low-cost supplies, sometimes seemingly to the exclusion of other factors, definitely has its downside.  I hope that the Defense Department can figure out a better way; I would, of course, like to see that better way applied to food and medical supplies, too.

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