'Kill Switch' Feared By Pentagon

In the 1982 movie Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, Khan Noonien Singh took over a small space cruiser, the USS Reliant. He then sidled up close to the USS Enterprise, put up the Reliant's shields, attacked and disabled the Enterprise, and demanded that Kirk, Spock, et al, surrender. Fortunately, Spock was able to send a special code to the Reliant's computer, which provided them with a kind of backdoor to shut down the Reliant's shields, thereby saving the day.

It turns out that the Pentagon is becoming increasingly concerned that something similar might happen with components outsourced around the globe. A 'kill switch' or other form of backdoor placed in any of the many chips that allow advanced aircraft to function would be disastrous.

According to recent articles, this kind of scenario is appearing with some frequency:

Last September, Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear installation in northeastern Syria. Among the many mysteries still surrounding that strike was the failure of a Syrian radar—supposedly state-of-the-art—to warn the Syrian military of the incoming assault. It wasn't long before military and technology bloggers concluded that this was an incident of electronic warfare—and not just any kind.

Post after post speculated that the commercial off-the-shelf microprocessors in the Syrian radar might have been purposely fabricated with a hidden “backdoor” inside. By sending a preprogrammed code to those chips, an unknown antagonist had disrupted the chips' function and temporarily blocked the radar.

I seem to recall these same concerns voiced several decades ago, when America outsourced all of its chip fabrication overseas, along with large parts of its electronics development.

I'd be surprised if the Pentagon had not put some sort of controls in place; I don't think it is possible to remedy the situation now.

For those military security officers who were born too late to have seen The Wrath of Khan when it first came out, they must have seen some of the new Battlestar Galactica series. As I recall, the Cylons ensure that an essential navigation program used by Colonial warships has backdoors that allow them to effectively 'kill' these ships in mid-flight.

From The hunt for the kill switch via Wired; thanks to Moira for suggesting this item.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 5/5/2008)

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