Late last week, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that our old pal China is spying on us through tiny chips installed by the People’s Liberation Army on domestically-produced motherboards that ended up in servers across the U.S., at companies including Apple, Amazon, and as many as 28 others. Both companies as well as their server supplier vehemently denied there was any espionage happening, and Businessweek denies it got the story wrong. So long as everyone out there, on all sides of this tale, is pretty brazenly lying or neglecting to get or keep their facts straight, we are in a mood to try and unpack whatever larger truth there might be.
There is a lot going on in this story, but one of the biggest things going on is the staggering number of competing interests. The server supplier was a rapidly-expanding startup, and Amazon and Apple are not only two of the biggest companies in the world, but two of our primary cultural exports. Those two entities have inserted themselves into the day-to-day livelihood of not just other businesses, but the government as well: Amazon already maintains a $600 million cloud-computing contract with the CIA, and over the summer, it competed fiercely for a contract with the Pentagon, which Oracle, another cloud computing juggernaut, ultimately managed to block.
Then there is Businessweek as a news outlet. The publication has a reputation for rigor, and lest it get some fact wrong and needlessly tank a whole industry, it generally errs on the side of not going to bat on neggy business stories. In the case of China specifically, a series of New York Times articles in late 2013 and early 2014 accused the news service of killing some China-related stories for fear of angering its leaders and losing not only its journalistic access, but a countries’ worth of Bloomberg Terminal financial business. That Businessweek decided to run a story accusing the country of espionage may be a reaction to those accusations, or it may speak to how solid its editors felt about the reporting.
All parties involved went to lengths to explain that consumer information is not so much what was being targeted — honestly, when they can probably access it all for cheap from any one of the thousands of apps Facebook gave it up to across the years of its existence, what would be the point — but the fact these companies regularly deal with and handle information for the government made it a significant concern.
Since Businessweek published its story, which was sourced from a variety of angles including unnamed parties within the government and the companies in question, everyone involved denied it, including the Department of Homeland Security. Apple went the extra step of sending a letter to Congress, which will probably light it on fire to hasten the coming of irreversible climate change. Either way, admission of guilt here about failing to either detect the hack or proactively tell the public about it would be pretty damaging to the reputations of all the victims. It has since emerged that Businessweek’s report had some questionable elements, including a chart that took pretty broad artistic license with how the hack would have worked, but Bloomberg stands by its reporting. Who is right?
Maybe the most important thing to remember here is not the strict truth of what happened, but that the story resonates because — not to be a conspiracy theorist — it is eminently plausible. Technology is that small, and it wouldn’t be a radical political notion for one country to do this to another. Come to that, it wouldn’t be implausible for the U.S. to do it right back to other countries in the scope of our increasing tenuous international relationships, except that we don’t really make anything here that we can ship abroad and use as ears, especially not tech that is integral to the foundations of society. That’s maybe a thing that should concern us, jingoistic though it may sound. We also get hacked constantly just through software; both Google and Facebook were significantly compromised recently, which is terrible but we all feel powerless to do anything about it, particularly when our best defense is Congress, which does nothing but whiff questions at Mark Zuckerberg like “how do you make money?” (“Senator, we run ads.”)
While I’d like to believe companies like Apple and Amazon protect both consumers and the government — for all that is wrong with capitalism, our money is meaningful if nothing else is — I think I would be shocked if the hack was real and they copped to it without a lot more pressure, which they probably won’t get as long as citizens/customers aren’t directly involved. It already appears from the story that these companies may have done significant work to quietly settle the issue with the government directly.
All that said, it also seems plausible that Businessweek’s sources (the people working for the respective companies and government divisions at the time the story was reported) have no fucking idea what they are talking about (security authorities are divided on whether this hack would work, why anyone would even do it this way, and whether Businessweek is fully, accurately describing it). Most people do not know Instagram is Facebook, most government websites are absolute trash, and Social Security cards are still literal pieces of paper. Tech literacy in the U.S., particularly within our government, is in a pretty sorry state; it’s not hard to imagine someone “with knowledge of the situation” overhearing a conversation about a malfunctioning chip, which is how both Apple and Amazon explained the story away, and misunderstanding it to mean willful surveillance by whatever political interest might have supplied it.
The truth might never be settled in this case, and surely we are all spying on each other regardless of whether it’s accomplished domestically, internationally, interpersonally, or technologically. But the fact that such crucial information is at so far of a remove from us that we have so little recourse to check what, precisely, is going on with it, and we are all uneducated enough about technology that a set of simple facts are so hard to parse, is uh, quite a place to be in.