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The Pentagon Must Replace Some Hackable Computer Chips

Last year’s vulnerability revelations, combined with the tardiness of manufacturers’ responses, leave the military with an expensive choice.

Recent revelations about vulnerabilities in computer chips ubiquitous in U.S. government and military computers — and just how poorly their manufacturer responded to these revelations — show that business as usual leaves our military open to truly staggering attacks. We must act with the greatest urgency to ensure that all available security patches are applied to weapons, intelligence systems, and other critical infrastructure. And in some cases, we should replace the chips: an expensive, but necessary step. 

As the former lead computer security engineer for the U.S. Transportation Command, or USTRANSCOM — the command that runs the military’s global transportation system — I know first-hand the exposure that our nation’s IT systems face. In 2018, researchers discovered security vulnerabilities, known as Spectre and Meltdown, that took advantage of design flaws inside processors that date back to the mid-1990s. The flaws, which primarily (though not exclusively) affect chips manufactured by Intel, persisted through several design generations. 

In May 2018, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, crystallized the situation at a congressional hearing: “It’s really troubling and concerning that many, if not all, computers used by the government contain a processor vulnerability that could allow hostile nations to steal key data sets and information.” Also troubling to Congressional overseers: Intel appears to have warned Chinese companies about the vulnerabilities six months before telling the U.S. government.

It has been more than two years since these flaws were uncovered. Across the federal government, agencies have expressed concerns. Last year, the National Security Agency issued guidance, including through an online hub, to help the Defense Department protect itself.

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Intel eventually issued patches to stop the exploits. Last May, the company “implied that all the problems were solved. But that wasn’t entirely true,” as the New York Times put it in November after the company released a new set of patches. 

But tech experts say these hardware vulnerabilities are not going away anytime soon, as shown by reports of exploits such as Foreshadow and Zombieload. Many tech companies, such as Google, have begun moving towards processors made by Intel competitors, reportedly at least partly because of these exploits, which not only raise security concerns but in some cases that patches for them can slow down computers and servers up to 40 percent.

The only true solution is to exchange each defective chip for a device containing a processor that is immune to these security and performance issues. (AMD is vulnerable to Spectre but not Meltdown, so in some cases a switch to an AMD-based computer is an option.) Expensive though it will be to replace vulnerable chips in sensitive systems, the cost pales in comparison to a cyber attack on our nation’s defenses.

For the longer term, the government and industry must work to ensure that Intel and other chipmakers can and do test for security flaws before they release new chips. This isn't easy and could slow down the race to market the next generation of technology. But isn't it better to take a couple of months and build the security into the chip? It’s like baking a cake: better to add security ingredients to the cake mix than to apply them like icing you can scrape off.