DARPA contracts vs. dreams

A few years ago, I dreamed that I was walking into a giant underground bunker with a bunch of other scientists. Through crystal-clear dream logic, I immediately understood that I had joined an NSA project to re-implement modern computer hardware and software, starting with individual transistors.

In my dream, the NSA was worried about a Thompson-style backdoor in their hardware, even the hardware they designed and implemented themselves. Even visual inspection of the hardware design wouldn’t necessarily reveal the backdoor, because the hardware itself would build the backdoor into any new hardware designed. (This isn’t feasible in exactly this form in reality, but it was a dream, give me a break.)

So obviously, we had to re-implement computers from scratch, starting with something too small to have a backdoor – a single transistor. The thing I remember most vividly from this dream is how happy I was, getting to bootstrap computers from the transistor up – yay! Even if I have to live underground for 5 years!

I was reminded of this dream while reading Charlie Stross’s plea for crazy military ideas he hadn’t already heard of. Someone pointed out the DARPA Trust in Integrated Circuits program (described in IEEE as “The Hunt for the Kill Switch“). Some American general noticed that we were building fighter jets out of foreign computer chips and convened a panel which concluded that we had to spend a lot of money trying to find backdoors and kill switches in hardware.

One can consider the F00F bug to be a version of the kill switch. If Intel can’t find unintentional “kill switches” in its chips, what hope does some DARPA contractor have of finding an intentionally created and hidden kill switch or backdoor? I think my dream (literally and figuratively) of a secret underground NSA computing bootstrap project is more feasible, or at least more likely to succeed.

Does anyone have interesting links or ideas related to detecting (or planting) Thompson-style backdoors? One could imagine the techniques would be transferable in some way to hardware, given that hardware design is done almost entirely in hardware description languages – software, of a sort.

7 thoughts on “DARPA contracts vs. dreams”

  1. They have their own fabs. And they only have 300nm resolution (afaik, which isn’t very far)… I don’t think you’re the only one with that dream. ;)

    1. The NSA do have their own fabs – and as you point out, they are having difficulty keeping up with the latest technology. My (extremely paranoid) dream concern was that they couldn’t verify the entire hardware and software chain that is turning out the chips in their own fabs, so it was possible to pervert something along the line. In the worst case, it would be a Thompson style attack – a compiler or tool somewhere along the line inserted code to propagate the backdoor, making it invisible outside the object code produced by the tools.

      (Sorry if I misunderstood the point of your post and explained what you already knew. :) )

  2. I think what I meant was suggesting that a ground-up design may be why they cannot upgrade their fabs (or take their other route of funding a verified but externally usable option via MOSIS or somebody)… But I’m also on cold meds, so I may not be terribly clear. I do know that this sort of problem is why some of their systems are so far behind. Modern systems’ complexity brings security issues, even unintentional ones like f00f, so systems used in some areas still must be reviewed by people.

    More than the crypto, I wish they’d publish more on review and testing procedures. Those would benefit security within the US as a whole (also one of their missions).

  3. I suspect (for the obvious reason) that you may already be aware of this example, but since you didn’t mention it… Glasshouse by Charles Stross has an interesting account of a Thompson backdoor in molecular assemblers, which self-propagates by infecting anything complicated produced by the assembler (including other assemblers), and whose purpose is to edit the memories of the people (re)constructed by the assembler.

    1. Yes, the Glasshouse molecular assembler backdoor is a great example of how a computer programming background can improve your science fiction output. I like the application of recursion to [plot spoiler] in “The Fuller Memorandum” too.

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