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Former counter-terror czar: Chinese-made electronics contain backdoors for hackers

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Richard Clarke, a former counter-terrorism adviser, warns that Chinese-made electronics contain backdoors that could be used to gain an economic or military advantage over the US.

Richard Clarke Wikimedia
Richard Clarke Wikimedia

Richard Clarke, a longtime former US counter-terrorism adviser, thinks that by manufacturing electronics in China, America is headed for a "death of a thousand cuts." The US, Clarke says, is waging a strong cyber offensive, but its defensive measures are pathetically ineffective. Our dependence on Chinese-made goods, he says, is a particular Achilles heel in a world where government-funded Chinese hackers can find anything from military IP to trade secrets. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Clarke says that "logic bombs" and trojans in imported electronics could lead to a loss of economic competitiveness, as more and more research "goes free to China." Or, worse, these backdoors could actually be used in a military action.

If what Clarke says is true, the American offensive is impressive but flawed. He attributes Stuxnet, the military virus used to sabotage an Iranian nuclear program in 2010, almost solely to the United States, saying that America had proved "you can cause real devices—real hardware in the world, in real space, not cyberspace—to blow up." Stuxnet, however, failed in one important way: it refused to die. Rather than erasing itself after a certain period of time, it continued to infect computers. "if I’m right," Clarke says, "the best cyberweapon the United States has ever developed, it then gave the world for free.""Every major company in the United States has already been penetrated by China."

Clarke's warnings sound fairly hyperbolic, especially given the general climate of American paranoia regarding China. Among other things, he claims that "every major company in the United States has already been penetrated by China." Currently running a security consultancy, Clarke also has a vested interest in drumming up business. However, it's clear that the US military has doubts about its current cyberwarfare program (although it's not evident that other countries have it figured out either.) And it wouldn't be the first time Clarke has been correct in hindsight. Months before the September 11th attacks in 2001, Clarke warned top Bush Administration officials about an impending al-Qaeda attack. We're not convinced yet that our iPhones are ticking bombs, but Clarke is in a better position to comment than most of us.