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Could spies actually insert malicious chips into computer circuit boards? A manufacturing expert says it’s possible (AAPL, AMZN, SMCI)

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  • Could spies actually insert malicious chips into server circuit boards, as alleged in a bombshell Bloomberg report?
  • Even if the story isn’t completely accurate, it’s plausible, a manufacturing expert explains.

Could Chinese spies covertly insert malicious chips into computer circuit boards sold in the United States to the military, Apple, and Amazon?

It’s a wild possibility to think about — but that’s exactly what Bloomberg reported in a deeply reported investigative story this week. It claimed that a supplier named SuperMicro, which manufactures the motherboards, was infiltrated by the spies several years ago.

Muddying the waters, all parties involved vigorously deny the report even as Bloomberg stands by its reporting. Amazon said the inaccuracies are “hard to count.” Apple published a rare 750-word statement in response, calling the report untrue.

It’s not surprising that the situation is unclear. The story touches on matters of international spying, high-tech manufacturing, and the world of information security — three of the most secretive realms in the entire world.

Ultimately, we may never know with a high degree of certainty what actually happened in the past three years, in regards to SuperMicro’s supply chain.

But according to one high-tech manufacturing expert, it’s entirely realistic to think that one bad actor could change the design on a circuit board, and that it wouldn’t be caught until the finished product is out in the wild.

“There’s so much complexity in these products,” Anna-Katrina Shedletsky told Business Insider in a phone interview. “I think what’s really great about that Bloomberg GIF that’s the top of that at the top of their article.”

“See how tiny that chip is? There’s no way human inspector is going to notice that there when it wasn’t supposed to be. Even the engineer who is intimately familiar with the layout of that design may not notice that,” she continued.

Shedletsky would know about detecting issues in contract manufacturing. She’s a cofounder of Instrumental, a company that uses machine learning to head off manufacturing defects, and she estimates she’s spent 500 days in factories in China and around the world, first as a product design engineer at Apple for six years, and later in her role as Instrumental’s CEO.

“I think based on the methodology in which these parts are designed and manufactured, whether it’s a nation-state actor or even just someone else, I don’t actually think it’s hard to inject stuff that the brand or design team didn’t intentionally ask for,” she said. She believes that easily searchable, high-resolution digital photos of circuit boards, one Instrumental’s main products, will become increasingly important as companies implement more controls on the supply chain.

All electronics have a circuit board


Instrumental cofounders Anna Shedletsky and Sam Weiss.play

Instrumental cofounders Anna Shedletsky and Sam Weiss.

(Instrumental)

Shedletsky doesn’t have any direct knowledge about the Bloomberg report or how SuperMicro does its manufacturing, and doesn’t know what to think given the strong and detailed denials provided by the companies involved.

“I don’t know what to believe, but at the same time it doesn’t really matter, because it’s possible, and we have to act like it is true to solve the problem,” she said.

After all, Bloomberg alleges that spies were able to put an unwanted chip on a printed circuit board. All electronics have a circuit board in them, she said. And often, one person can change the computer file that has the design.

“The manufacturer doesn’t even need to be nefarious,” she explained, speaking generally. “You just need one person who is going to change the reference design and hit save. Now it’s going to go on any customer that pulls that reference design, for something like a server that’s pretty generic.”

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These parts go through an inspection before they’re packed and shipped, but these kind of inspections aren’t set up to detect things that have been added — they’re often more concerned with common issues like whether the solder was properly applied. And if the design document was altered, then these tests wouldn’t pick it up either.

“It would be very easy to get by one of those tests. Those tests are based on what’s called the ‘Gerber file’ or the computer aided design of what’s supposed to be on the board,” she explained.

One problem that has come up in her experience is counterfeits. Sometimes, she said, factories can replace one chip on a circuit board with cheaper, counterfeit alternatives and the company that built the product doesn’t realize until it’s shipping.


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(Reuters Pictures Archive)

“A friend of mine built a product and their batteries started smoking,” she said. “The root cause was that the power chip was a cheaper version that was not on the design. It had less circuitry, but it looked like a power chip and kind of functions like one, but it was a ‘cost-down’ model, like it was a cheaper chip.”

There’s also a range of different levels of security at different factories, she said. In some, everything is locked down and controlled. At others, circuit boards and other parts are seen as less critical than stuff like the enclosures, which can be considered super-secret.

In general, though, she doesn’t worry about consumer devices like smartphones from big, well-resourced brands like Apple being vulnerable to hardware attacks like the one Bloomberg alleges — there are simply too many people looking at the design and finished product.

But that still leaves a lot of vulnerable products out there.

“Even regardless of whether it’s true or not, if you were a SuperMicro customer for the last four years, five years you might be thinking, ‘do any of our server boards have problematic stuff going on?'” Shedletsky said. “I would be asking myself if I was a customer. Because it’s so plausible, there could be more we don’t know about.”



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Public officers above 58 years and with pre-existing conditions told to work from home: The Standard

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Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua. [File, Standard]
In a document from Head of Public Service, Joseph Kinyua new measure have been outlined to curb the bulging spread of covid-19. Public officers with underlying health conditions and those who are over 58 years -a group that experts have classified as most vulnerable to the virus will be required to execute their duties from home.

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However, the new rule excluded personnel in the security sector and other critical and essential services.
“All State and public officers with pre-existing medical conditions and/or aged 58 years and above serving in CSG5 (job group ‘S’) and below or their equivalents should forthwith work from home,” read the document,” read the document.
To ensure that those working from home deliver, the Public Service directs that there be clear assignments and targets tasked for the period designated and a clear reporting line to monitor and review work done.
SEE ALSO: Thinking inside the cardboard box for post-lockdown work stations
Others measures outlined in the document include the provision of personal protective equipment to staff, provision of sanitizers and access to washing facilities fitted with soap and water, temperature checks for all staff and clients entering public offices regular fumigation of office premises and vehicles and minimizing of visitors except by prior appointments.
Officers who contract the virus and come back to work after quarantine or isolation period will be required to follow specific directives such as obtaining clearance from the isolation facility certified by the designated persons indicating that the public officer is free and safe from Covid-19. The officer will also be required to stay away from duty station for a period of seven days after the date of medical certification.
“The period a public officer spends in quarantine or isolation due to Covid-19, shall be treated as sick leave and shall be subject to the Provisions of the Human Resource Policy and procedures Manual for the Public Service(May,2016),” read the document.
The service has also made discrimination and stigmatization an offence and has guaranteed those affected with the virus to receive adequate access to mental health and psychosocial supported offered by the government.
The new directives targeting the Public Services come at a time when Kenyans have increasingly shown lack of strict observance of the issued guidelines even as the number of positive Covid-19 cases skyrocket to 13,771 and leaving 238 dead as of today.
SEE ALSO: Working from home could be blessing in disguise for persons with disabilities
Principal Secretaries/ Accounting Officers will be personally responsible for effective enforcement and compliance of the current guidelines and any future directives issued to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

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Uhuru convenes summit to review rising Covid-19 cases: The Standard

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President Uhuru Kenyatta (pictured) will on Friday, July 24, meet governors following the ballooning Covid-19 infections in recent days.
The session will among other things review the efficacy of the containment measures in place and review the impact of the phased easing of the restrictions, State House said in a statement.
This story is being updated.
SEE ALSO: Sakaja resigns from Covid-19 Senate committee, in court tomorrow

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Drastic life changes affecting mental health

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Kenya has been ranked 6th among African countries with the highest cases of depression, this has triggered anxiety by the World Health Organization (WHO), with 1.9 million people suffering from a form of mental conditions such as depression, substance abuse.

KBC Radio_KICD Timetable

Globally, one in four people is affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, this is according to the WHO.

Currently, around 450 million people suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

The pandemic has also been known to cause significant distress, mostly affecting the state of one’s mental well-being.

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With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic attributed to the novel Coronavirus disease, millions have been affected globally with over 14 million infections and half a million deaths as to date. This has brought about uncertainty coupled with difficult situations, including job loss and the risk of contracting the deadly virus.

In Kenya the first Coronavirus case was reported in Nairobi by the Ministry of Health on the 12th March 2020.  It was not until the government put in place precautionary measures including a curfew and lockdown (the latter having being lifted) due to an increase in the number of infections that people began feeling its effect both economically and socially.

A study by Dr. Habil Otanga,  a Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Department of Psychology says  that such measures can in turn lead to surge in mental related illnesses including depression, feelings of confusion, anger and fear, and even substance abuse. It also brings with it a sense of boredom, loneliness, anger, isolation and frustration. In the post-quarantine/isolation period, loss of employment due to the depressed economy and the stigma around the disease are also likely to lead to mental health problems.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) states that at least 300,000 Kenyans have lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus pandemic between the period of January and March this year.

KNBC noted that the number of employed Kenyans plunged to 17.8 million as of March from 18.1 million people as compared to last year in December. The Report states that the unemployment rate in Kenya stands at 13.7 per cent as of March this year while it stood 12.4 per cent in December 2019.

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Mama T (not her real name) is among millions of Kenyans who have been affected by containment measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus, either by losing their source of income or having to work under tough guidelines put in place by the MOH.

As young mother and an event organizer, she has found it hard to explain to her children why they cannot go to school or socialize freely with their peers as before.

“Sometimes it gets difficult as they do not understand what is happening due to their age, this at times becomes hard on me as they often think I am punishing them,”

Her contract was put on hold as no event or public gatherings can take place due to the pandemic. This has brought other challenges along with it, as she has to find means of fending for her family expenditures that including rent and food.

“I often wake up in the middle of the night with worries about my next move as the pandemic does not exhibit any signs of easing up,” she says. She adds that she has been forced to sort for manual jobs to keep her family afloat.

Ms. Mary Wahome, a Counseling Psychologist and Programs Director at ‘The Reason to Hope,’ in Karen, Nairobi says that such kind of drastic life changes have an adverse effect on one’s mental status including their family members and if not addressed early can lead to depression among other issues.

“We have had cases of people indulging in substance abuse to deal with the uncertainty and stress brought about by the pandemic, this in turn leads to dependence and also domestic abuse,”

Sam Njoroge , a waiter at a local hotel in Kiambu, has found himself indulging in substance abuse due to challenges he is facing after the hotel he was working in was closed down as it has not yet met the standards required by the MOH to open.

“My day starts at 6am where I go to a local pub, here I can get a drink for as little as Sh30, It makes me suppress the frustration I feel.” he says.

Sam is among the many who have found themselves in the same predicament and resulted to substance abuse finding ways to beat strict measures put in place by the government on the sale of alcohol so as to cope.

Mary says, situations like Sam’s are dangerous and if not addressed early can lead to serious complications, including addiction and dependency, violent behavior and also early death due to health complications.

She has, however, lauded the government for encouraging mental wellness and also launching the Psychological First Aid (PFA) guide in the wake of the virus putting emphasis on the three action principal of look, listen and link. “When we follow this it will be easy to identify an individual in distress and also offer assistance”.

Mary has urged anyone feeling the weight of the virus taking a toll on them not to hesitate but look for someone to talk to.

“You should not only seek help from a specialist but also talk to a friend, let them know what you are undergoing and how you feel, this will help ease their emotional stress and also find ways of dealing with the situation they are facing,” She added

Mary continued to stress on the need to perform frequent body exercises as a form of stress relief, reading and also taking advantage of this unfortunate COVID-19 period to engage in hobbies and talent development.

“Let people take this as an opportunity to kip fit, get in touch with one’s inner self and  also engage in   reading that would  help expand their knowledge.

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