UK researchers discover backdoor in American military chip

Amy Walters/

Glitch presents potential for a ‘large scale Stuxnet-type attack,’ paper says.

This story has been updated.

U.K.-based security researchers have found a backdoor that was “deliberately” inserted into an American military chip to help attackers gain unauthorized access and reprogram its memory, according to a draft research paper.

Sergei Skorobogatov, a researcher at Cambridge University, discovered that a military-grade silicon device made by California-based Microsemi Corp., the ProASIC3 A3P250, contained a glitch that would allow individuals to remotely tweak its functions. “This permits a new and disturbing possibility of a large scale Stuxnet-type attack via a network or the Internet on the silicon itself,” the paper suggests. The Stuxnet worm, discovered in 2010, targets industrial systems.

The backdoor was obscured within the security mechanism of the chip with robust countermeasures to prevent access by others, a likely indication that it had been deliberately implanted, said Christopher Woods, a researcher at U.K.-based Quo Vadis Labs who collaborated on the research. The duo did not disclose further details in their paper, citing a “confidentiality agreement.”

The backdoor is “close to impossible to fix on chips already deployed” because software patches can’t fix the bugs. The security holes can only be removed by replacing all such chips installed in systems, the duo noted.

Microsemi’s aggregate net sales to defense and security users represented approximately 29 percent of total net sales in 2012, according to its most recent quarterly regulatory filing. The device in question is “heavily marketed to the military and industry,” the draft report states. It was manufactured by TSMC Taiwan and packaged either in China or Korea, Woods said in an email to Nextgov.

A Microsemi spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The research duo's full findings will be presented at a conference in Belgium in September, Skorobogatov said in a separate email.

Going forward, the pair will study how to authenticate chips and parts using scanning techniques that will distinguish between counterfeit and real components.

(Image via Amy Walters/  /