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UK, US Security Agencies Deny Investigating Chinese Spy Chips

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.K. National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) have denied investigating the presence of Chinese spy chips in Supermicro servers, as claimed by a bombshell report published last week by Bloomberg.

According to Bloomberg, the Chinese government planted tiny chips in Supermicro motherboards in an effort to spy on more than 30 organizations in the United States, including government agencies and tech giants such as Apple and Amazon.

The report, on which Bloomberg reporters have been working for the past year using information from 17 sources, claims that Chinese agents masquerading as government or Super Micro employees pressured or bribed managers at the Chinese factories where the motherboards are built. Once the chips were planted, they would allow attackers to remotely access the compromised devices.DHS and NCSC respond to reports on Chinese spy chips

Apple and Amazon allegedly discovered the malicious hardware implants and contacted the FBI.

While many experts agree that it is technically possible to create and plant spy chips such as the one described, Apple, Amazon and Super Micro have strongly denied the reports, and their statements have now been backed by the DHS and the NCSC.

“We are aware of the media reports but at this stage have no reason to doubt the detailed assessments made by AWS and Apple,” stated the NCSC. “The NCSC engages confidentially with security researchers and urges anybody with credible intelligence about these reports to contact us.”

The DHS also published a statement on Saturday saying it's aware of the media reports.

“Like our partners in the UK, the National Cyber Security Centre, at this time we have no reason to doubt the statements from the companies named in the story,” the agency stated. “Information and communications technology supply chain security is core to DHS’s cybersecurity mission and we are committed to the security and integrity of the technology on which Americans and others around the world increasingly rely.”

No one has been able to independently confirm that the FBI has launched an investigation as a result of the discovery of spy chips, and a former Apple executive said the agency's representatives told him that they had never heard of this type of investigation.

Apple, Amazon and Super Micro have been contacted by Bloomberg several times while the article was being written, but they are not happy with the final result. While it's not uncommon for major companies to deny news reports, the statements issued by the tech giants named in the Bloomberg story stand out due to the fact that they are very detailed and attempt to show that the article is factually inaccurate.

“At no time, past or present, have we ever found any issues relating to modified hardware or malicious chips in SuperMicro motherboards in any Elemental or Amazon systems. Nor have we engaged in an investigation with the government,” Amazon said. “There are so many inaccuracies in ‎this article as it relates to Amazon that they’re hard to count.”

Apple claims it's disappointed that Bloomberg reporters have not been open to the possibility that their sources might be misinformed or wrong.

“Despite numerous discussions across multiple teams and organizations, no one at Apple has ever heard of this investigation. Businessweek has refused to provide us with any information to track down the supposed proceedings or findings. Nor have they demonstrated any understanding of the standard procedures which were supposedly circumvented,” Apple said.

For its part, Super Micro also denied knowing anything about a government investigation.

“The manufacture of motherboards in China is not unique to Supermicro and is a standard industry practice. Nearly all systems providers use the same contract manufacturers. Supermicro qualifies and certifies every contract manufacturer and routinely inspects their facilities and processes closely,” it stated.

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.