October 20, 2017

Archives for May 2008

The Microsoft Case, Ten Years Later

Sunday was the tenth anniversary of the government filing its antitrust case against Microsoft. The date passed almost unnoticed, though echoes of the case continue to reverberate. This week I want to reflect on the case, with the benefit of ten years’ hindsight. I’ll write at least three posts: today, on the overall legacy of the case; Wednesday, on how the case affected the public view of Microsoft and software companies generally; and Friday, on how the government’s theory of the software market (which the courts accepted) looks in hindsight.

(Before starting, I should clarify that although I worked with the DoJ trial team through virtually the entire case – from before the case was filed, through the negotiation of the final settlement – I can’t say anything about what happened behind closed doors. My opinion is informed by everything I saw and heard, but unfortunately some of the most interesting details have to stay secret.)

Today I want to consider the overall legacy of the case. The purpose of antitrust law is to protect market competition, for the good of consumers. Thus Microsoft’s ultimate success in crushing Netscape and blunting the effect of Java only matters to the extent that it might have harmed consumers. The relevant questions are these: (1) Are the markets for operating systems and browsers healthier and more competitive than they would have been had the case not been brought? (2) Are consumers better off than they would have been had the case not been brought?

I see the case as a success by these standards, not so much because of the settlement, which most people saw as weak, but because the case taught Microsoft that ignoring antitrust concerns can be dangerous. Microsoft was routed in court and faced the possibility (though never the likelihood) of a court-ordered break-up; but the company managed to negotiate a favorable settlement when the government was distracted after the 9/11 attacks. Apparently worried that it might not be so lucky the next time, the company has moderated its behavior. It still dominates the operating system and browser markets – and it is still a fierce technical competitor, but its business and legal behavior is more moderate.

This kinder, gentler Microsoft is one of the two main legacies of the case. The other is the consensus that antitrust laws do in fact apply to high-tech companies. Though the law moves slowly – and sometimes can only deter via the possibility of after-the-fact sanctions – companies are not immune to its discipline just because they are in high-tech markets. Other powerful companies, such as Intel and Google, have learned this lesson too.

Tomorrow: how the case affected the public view of Microsoft and the software industry.

Live Webcast: Future of News, May 14-15

We’re going to do a live webcast of our workshop on “The Future of News“, which will be held tomorrow and Thursday (May 14-15) in Princeton. Attending the workshop (free registration) gives you access to the speakers and other attendees over lunch and between sessions, but if that isn’t practical, the webcast is available.

Here are the links you need:

  • Live video streaming
  • Live chat facility for remote participants
  • To ask the speaker a question, email

Sessions are scheduled for 10:45-noon and 1:30-5:00 on Wed., May 14; and 9:30-12:30 and 1:30-3:15 on Thur., May 15.

Counterfeits, Trojan Horses, and shady distributors

Last Friday, the New York Times published an article about counterfeit Cisco products that have been sold as if they were genuine and are widely used throughout the U.S. government.  The article also raised the concern that these counterfeits could well be engineered with malicious intent, but that this appears not to have been the case. There was an immediate Slashdot thread as well, but a number of issues are still worth commenting on.

First things first: the facts, as best we understand them.  The New York Times reports that approximately 3500 counterfeit Cisco components (worth $3.5M) have been discovered as a result of a two-year FBI investigation.  A Cisco spokesman is quoted saying that they found “no evidence of re-engineering.”  In other words, we’re talking about faithful knock-offs of legitimate products.

If you go to the FBI’s unclassified PowerPoint presentation (dated January 11, 2008), you’ll see all the actual information.  This is a fascinating read.  For starters, let’s talk about the cost.  The slides claim you can get a counterfeit router for approximately 1/6 the cost of a genuine router.  (You can do similarly well buying used gear on eBay.)  The counterfeit gear looks an awful lot like the genuine article.  Detecting differences here is as difficult as detecting counterfeit money, counterfeit Rolex watches, or counterfeit signatures from sports stars.  Given the apparent discrepancy between component cost and street value, we should be no more surprised to find knock-off Cisco gear than we are to find knock-off everything else.

Counterfeit vs. Original Cisco line card

It’s claimed that these counterfeits are built to lower manufacturing standards than the original equipment, causing higher failure rates. One even caught fire due to a faulty power supply.  Likewise, the fakers are making stupid errors, like building multiple components with the same MAC address.  (MAC addresses, by design, are meant to be unique – no two ever the same.)

The really interesting story is all about the supply chain. Consider how you might buy yourself a new Mac.  You could go to your local Apple store.  Or you could get it from any of a variety of other stores, who in turn may have gotten it from Apple directly or may have gone through a distributor.  Apparently, for Cisco gear, it’s much more complicated than that.  The U.S. government buys from “approved” vendors, who might then buy from multiple tiers of sub-contractors.  In one case, one person bought shady gear from eBay and resold it to the government, moving a total of $1M in gear before he was caught.  In a more complicated case, Lockheed Martin won a bid for a U.S. Navy project.  They contracted with an unauthorized Cisco reseller who in turn contracted with somebody else, who used a sub-contractor, who then directly shipped the counterfeit gear to the Navy. (The slides say that $250K worth of counterfeit gear was sold; duplicate serial numbers were discovered.)

Why is this happening?  The Government wants to save money, so they look for contractors who can give them the best price, and their contracts allow for subcontracts, direct third-party shipping, and so forth.  There is no serious vetting of this supply chain by either Cisco or the government. Apparently, Cisco doesn’t do direct sales except for high-end, specialized gear.  You’d think Cisco would follow the lead of the airline industry, among others, and cut out the distributors to keep the profit for themselves.

Okay, on to the speculation.  Both the New York Times and the FBI presentation concern themselves with Trojan Horses.  Even though there’s no evidence that any of this counterfeit gear was actually malicious, the weak controls in the supply chain make it awfully easy for such compromised gear to be sold into sensitive parts of the government, raising all the obvious concerns.

Consider a recent paper by U. Illinois’s Sam King et al. where they built a “malicious processor”.  The idea is pretty clever.  You send along a “secret knock” (e.g., a network packet with a particular header) which triggers a sensor that enables “shadow code” to start running alongside the real operating system.  The Illinois team built shadow code that compromised the Linux login program, adding a backdoor password.  After the backdoor was tripped, it would disable the shadow code, thus going back to “normal” operation.

The military is awfully worried about this sort of threat, as well they should be.  For that matter, so are voting machine critics. It’s awfully easy for “stealth” malicious behavior to exist in legitimate systems, regardless of how carefully you might analyze or test it. Ken Thompson’s classic paper, Reflections on Trusting Trust, shows how he designed a clever Trojan Horse for Unix.  [Edit: it’s unclear that it ever got released into the wild.]

Okay everybody, let’s put on our evil hats.  If your goal was to get a Trojan Horse router into a sensitive military environment, how would you do it and how would it behave?  Clearly, the weak supply chain is an excellent vector for getting the gear into place.  Given the resources of a nation-state intelligence agency, you could afford to buy genuine Cisco parts and modify them, rather than using low-cost, counterfeit gear.  Nobody would detect you; you wouldn’t screw up and ship multiple boxes with the same serial number.

How will you implement your Trojan Horse logic?  Pretty much any gear you’ll ever find of any modest complexity will have software running inside it.  Even line cards have embedded processors of some sort.  For all that hardware, there’s software, and that’s what you’d go to install your logic bomb.  The increasing use of FPGAs in industrial designs means you could also “rewire” those parts to behave arbitrarily, much like the Illinois hack; you’d really want to get a hold of the original VHDL “source code”, leveraging your aforementioned spying prowess, to simplify the design and implementation of your malicious behavior.  Hacking the raw netlists (the FPGA-equivalent of machine code) would be possible, but would be far more painful. [See Sidebar.]

What sort of behavior would you build in?  The New York Times raises the idea of a kill switch.  I send your router a magic packet and it dies.  That’s too easy.  How about I send your router a magic packet, it then forwards it on to all of its peers, repeatedly, and then they all die a few seconds later?  That’s a pretty good denial of service attack (nevermind a plot device that was the basis of a popular science fiction television series). Alternatively, following the Illinois idea, we could imagine that the magic packet turns on a monitoring feature, allowing our intelligence agency to gather all kinds of information, reconfigure the router, and so forth.  If they don’t want to generate extra traffic, which might be detected, they could instead weaken the encryption of a VPN tunnel, perhaps publishing the session key through a subliminal channel of some sort, acquiring the ciphertext through “other” means.

In summary, it’s probably a good thing, from the perspective of the U.S. military, to discover that their supply chain is allowing counterfeit gear into production.  This will help them clean up the supply chain, and will also provide an extra push to consider just how much they trust the sources of their equipment to ship clean software and hardware.

[Sidebar: Xilinx supports a notion of “encrypting” a netlist.  Broadly speaking, the idea behind the technology is to encrypt the description of your FPGA configuration with a crypto key, such that anybody who reads the file out of your board gets encrypted garbage.  However, the FPGA has the key material to decrypt the configuration and then initialize itself normally.  This sort of technology is meant to serve an anti-piracy / anti-reverse-engineering purpose.  It could ostensibly also serve an anti-Trojan Horse purpose, although at that point it’s really no more or less secure, semantically, than Microsoft’s Authenticode.  This technology, more broadly, is also an active research area (see, for example, Roy et al.’s EPIC: Ending Piracy of Integrated Circuits).  Again, if we’ve got a nation-state intelligence service tampering with the system, none of this is going to provide meaningful protection for the end-user against Trojan Horses.]