This morning’s Observer column.
At a remarkable conference held at the Aspen Institute in 2011, General Michael Hayden, a former head of both the NSA and the CIA, said something very interesting. In a discussion of how to secure the “critical infrastructure” of the United States he described the phenomenon of compromised computer hardware – namely, chips that have hidden “back doors” inserted into them at the design or manufacturing stage – as “the problem from hell”. And, he went on, “frankly, it’s not a problem that can be solved”.
Now General Hayden is an engaging, voluble, likable fellow. He’s popular with the hacking crowd because he doesn’t talk like a government suit. But sometimes one wonders if his agreeable persona is actually a front for something a bit more disingenuous. Earlier in the Aspen discussion, for example, he talked about the Stuxnet worm – which was used to destroy centrifuges in the Iranian nuclear programme – as something that was obviously created by a nation-state, but affected not to know that the US was one of the nation-states involved.
Given Hayden’s background and level of security clearance, it seems inconceivable that he didn’t know who built Stuxnet. So already one had begun to take his contributions with a modicum of salt. Nevertheless, his observation about the intractability of the problem of compromised hardware seemed incontrovertible…
LATER: I come on this amazing piece of detective work which uncovers a backdoor installed in some D-Link routers.