Do Personal Computers Come With NSA Surveillance Devices Built-In As Standard?

by Glyn Moody
Techdirt
May. 28, 2014

As Techdirt reported last year, one of the most bizarre episodes in the unfolding story of the Snowden leaks was when two experts from the UK's GCHQ oversaw the destruction of the Guardian's computers that held material provided by Snowden. As everyone -- including the Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger -- pointed out, this was a particularly pointless act since copies of the documents were held elsewhere, outside the UK. The only possible explanation seemed to be that the UK government was trying to put the frighteners on the Guardian, and engaged in this piece of theater to ram the point home. But a fascinating blog post from Privacy International raises the possibility that there is another far more disturbing explanation:
GCHQ were not just interested in hard drives nor did they destroy whole devices. An examination of the targeted hardware by Privacy International, with cooperation from the Guardian, has found the whole episode to be more troubling and puzzling than previously believed.

During our investigation, we were surprised to learn that a few very specific components on devices, such as the keyboard, trackpad and monitor, were targeted along with apparently trivial chips on the main boards of laptops and desktops. Initial consultation with members of the technology community supported our identification of the components and that the actions of GCHQ were worth analyzing further.
In other words, GCHQ weren't trying to destroy the data -- which they, like everyone else, knew was completely futile. There were interested in "apparently trivial chips on the main boards of laptops and desktops." Specifically, these were the keyboard controller chip, the trackpad controller chip and the inverting converter chip. Privacy International provides more details:
From our analysis, we believe the targeted component of the keyboard is the keyboard encoder responsible for communicating over the USB and interpreting key presses on its various I/O pins.

...

We believe the targeted [trackpad] component is a serial flash chip that may perform a similar function to the keyboard controller also targeted. It is noteworthy that the device in question uses the controller board on the trackpad to also connect the keyboard to the main device.

...

The final component is an inverting converter, again used on the Apple MacBook Air systems.
Just over a year ago, only the most paranoid would have worried about the fact that the GCHQ sent two people to destroy these seemingly trivial components. But in the wake of Snowden's revelations about the astonishing range of technologies that the NSA has developed in order to infiltrate hardware systems -- things like radio transmitters built into USB leads -- the GCHQ's actions immediately raise a troubling thought: that most or all mainstream computers routinely contain various components that can be used to spy on us. As Privacy International concludes:
We will continue to explore the rest of the chips destroyed by GCHQ. We welcome any thoughts from individuals who have an understanding of these components and what their storage capabilities are, and for what purposes. We hope to achieve some much needed transparency about what our devices do and how the unseen components on the inside might betray our privacy.
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