The United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre has backed Apple’s and Amazon’s denials of a Bloomberg Businessweek report that claimed Chinese spies planted tiny chips the size of a pencil tip on motherboards manufactured by Supermicro, which both Apple and Amazon used at one time in data center servers.
“We are aware of the media reports but at this stage have no reason to doubt the detailed assessments made by AWS and Apple,” the agency, a unit of the GCHQ, said in a statement provided to Reuters today.
“The NCSC engages confidentially with security researchers and urges anybody with credible intelligence about these reports to contact us,” it added.
Apple was a Supermicro customer for several years, using its servers to power the likes of iCloud, Siri, and the App Store, although it severed ties with the company in 2016 due to a previously-reported and allegedly unrelated incident in which Apple discovered an infected driver on a single server in one of its labs.
Bloomberg Businessweek yesterday reported that Apple discovered the suspicious microchips around May 2015, after detecting odd network activity and firmware problems. Two senior Apple insiders were cited as saying the company reported the incident to the FBI, but kept details tightly held.
The insiders cited in the report said in the summer of 2015, a few weeks after Apple identified the malicious chips, the company started removing all Supermicro servers from its data centers. Every one of the 7,000 or so Supermicro servers was replaced in a matter of weeks, according to one of the insiders.
One government official cited in the Bloomberg Businessweek report said China’s goal was “long-term access to high-value corporate secrets and sensitive government networks.” No consumer data is known to have been stolen, the report added, but the extent of the alleged attack appears to be unclear.
Apple denied Bloomberg Businessweek‘s report in a strongly-worded statement:
Over the course of the past year, Bloomberg has contacted us multiple times with claims, sometimes vague and sometimes elaborate, of an alleged security incident at Apple. Each time, we have conducted rigorous internal investigations based on their inquiries and each time we have found absolutely no evidence to support any of them. We have repeatedly and consistently offered factual responses, on the record, refuting virtually every aspect of Bloomberg’s story relating to Apple.
On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, “hardware manipulations” or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server. Apple never had any contact with the FBI or any other agency about such an incident. We are not aware of any investigation by the FBI, nor are our contacts in law enforcement.
In response to Bloomberg’s latest version of the narrative, we present the following facts: Siri and Topsy never shared servers; Siri has never been deployed on servers sold to us by Super Micro; and Topsy data was limited to approximately 2,000 Super Micro servers, not 7,000. None of those servers has ever been found to hold malicious chips.
As a matter of practice, before servers are put into production at Apple they are inspected for security vulnerabilities and we update all firmware and software with the latest protections. We did not uncover any unusual vulnerabilities in the servers we purchased from Super Micro when we updated the firmware and software according to our standard procedures.
We are deeply disappointed that in their dealings with us, Bloomberg’s reporters have not been open to the possibility that they or their sources might be wrong or misinformed. Our best guess is that they are confusing their story with a previously-reported 2016 incident in which we discovered an infected driver on a single Super Micro server in one of our labs. That one-time event was determined to be accidental and not a targeted attack against Apple.
While there has been no claim that customer data was involved, we take these allegations seriously and we want users to know that we do everything possible to safeguard the personal information they entrust to us. We also want them to know that what Bloomberg is reporting about Apple is inaccurate.
Apple has always believed in being transparent about the ways we handle and protect data. If there were ever such an event as Bloomberg News has claimed, we would be forthcoming about it and we would work closely with law enforcement. Apple engineers conduct regular and rigorous security screenings to ensure that our systems are safe. We know that security is an endless race and that’s why we constantly fortify our systems against increasingly sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals who want to steal our data.
Apple later clarified that it is not under any kind of gag order or other confidentiality obligations after speculation mounted.
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