Not a grain of truth to spy story

Editorial | Mary Ma 8 Oct 2018

It's fascinating to read the People's Liberation Army had been planting tiny chips the size of a rice grain in motherboards supplied to a large US server motherboard manufacturer, whose products are widely used by the US Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, and American naval warships.

The Bloomberg Businessweek report may be another earth-shattering piece by the media following investigative journalist Bob Woodward's insight in Fear: Trump in the White House.

The problem is the Bloomberg piece was too fascinating to totally accept as gospel, without raising some serious questions.

The first concerns timing. The report surfaced less than a month before the US mid-term election on November 6. If Republicans are defeated at the polls, President Donald Trump's administration would become a lame duck, with his 2020 re-election dream vaporizing.

As for Trump and hardliners at the White House, no tricks would be deemed too dirty if they can secure a Grand Old Party victory. So, could the report be Trump's "alternative facts?"

According to Bloomberg, the investigation into the PLA "hacking" scam has been going on for three years, triggered back in 2015 amid Amazon's bid to acquire US streaming technology leader, Elemental Technologies, as part of Amazon's plan to build a secure cloud for the CIA.

Citing as many as 17 sources, it reported that "troubling issues" discovered during due diligence examination led investigators to examine the motherboards supplied by San Jose-based Super Micro Computers, one of the world's largest motherboard makers. Technology giants like Apple and Amazon also reportedly fell victim to the scam.

In addition to consumer products, the motherboards were used in systems at the Department of Defense and the CIA.

It's extremely sensitive, and I'm surprised the information hadn't been leaked to the media before now, in view of the large number of people involved and the serious nature of the incident. Why wasn't the info fed to the media sooner?

Two, the advance level of technology as reported. According to the article, the chips were extremely small, and yet capable of creating a stealth doorway, allowing the PLA to intrude into any network using the compromised motherboards.

That would suggest China's computer technology has reached an absolutely advanced stage. But this didn't fit into the embarrassing ZTE case, in which the so-called largest technology manufacturer in China was paralyzed immediately after the United States refused to sell it chips at the start of the trade war.

The sanction was lifted only after ZTE agreed to pay massive fines and appoint a new board of directors as desired by the Americans.

Would ZTE submit to such humiliation if the Chinese technology was so advanced?

The three US companies - Apple, Amazon and Super Micro - have all denied the report. If what's said was true, they would be guilty of providing false information to mislead investors, and the outcome could be extremely serious in America.

However, until the US Securities and Exchange Commission takes action, I'll ju st continue to enjoy the story as a spy thriller.

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