1 July 2017
Office US Federal Communications Commission
15:00 Hours, Local Time
Wilford Sawicki, US Defence Secretary was not in the best of moods when he entered the meeting room. There were a lot of fires raging all through the world and he mostly felt overwhelmed trying to deal with them all. He had read the news about Xijiang spyware in one of his many briefings, but had not paid much attention to it. What happened in a few phone and internet companies was not directly related to his mandate. There were a lot more important things that needed his full attention like emergence of another islamist faction in Syria, Chinese activities in it’s neighbourhood and beyond to list a few.
So when he got a notice about an urgent meeting with Geoffery Stilwell, Chairman of US Federal Communications Commission, first thing he felt was exasperation. Now that he was in the meeting room unexpectedly 10 minutes early, he just wanted the whole thing to be over as soon as possible.
“Hello Mr Sawicki, thank you for giving us some of your time and I am very sorry to keep you waiting. There are some things related to this meeting which kept us busy. ” Stilwell rushed into the meeting room and offered his hand to the already bored Sawicki.”We are going to start the meeting right now. Under Secretary Richard Barrow from Homeland Security was supposed to join us too, but he got stuck in Florida. He’ll probably join us through a video link. There is a short presentation by Clarke Marias, our technical espionage expert. He will explain what we are doing.” No description was given about who the other four people were and Sawicki didn’t feel like asking.
He was followed in to the meeting room by 5 other people, each one with a tired expression on their faces. Marias fiddled with a digital projector and put a screenshot of Axone’s report on the screen.
He began after getting a nod from Stilwell, “As we are all aware this article declared that Xijiang is using hardware trojans in it’s telecommunications equipment. These trojans or backdoors are stealing data from our voice and computer networks and sending it to Chinese operated servers.”
Sawicki interrupted, “ Pardon me for interrupting Mr Marias. As far as I know, Xijiang has no presence in our military networks.So what’s my role in this meeting?”
Stilwell nodded, “You’re right, we’re coming to your point just now.”
Marias resumed his briefing, “As Mr Defence Secretary mentioned, Xijiang has been kept out from our military networks. But unfortunately a huge part of our civilian network including some vital parts like internet, telephones, some power plants, traffic control among others are using Xijiang equipment. We’ve done our own research about the Axone report. We actually started working on it a few months before this report was published and every thing that they’ve published is true.”
He clicked the forward button on the remote control to bring in a data network map of USA on screen. “I am assuming that all of us have read the report and our remarks in the meeting brief already. So I’ll save some time and not go over all those points again. Our focus will be on how it affects USA and what we can do about it.
This chart here shows the general outline of our communications structure and presence of Xijiang backdoors is indicated by red triangles. As you can see, two of our biggest telecommunication companies Cellcom and Mictel are using Xijiang’s equipment in a total of 29 states across USA. In total this covers 142 million mobile phones, 40 million broadband connections and 90 thousand dedicated leased line connections for vital civilian infrastructure such as traffic control, banks, stock exchanges, hospitals, electricity generation & distribution in addition to e-commerce and other internet infrastructure.
He paused to change the slide which presented names of some companies and government agencies. “With trojans in networks of these companies, China now has nearly full access to networks of all these companies and government infrastructure here which are vital for our national security and interests. We believe that China now has a huge database of data related to identities of our citizens, even their financial and medical records.
That itself is a huge security breach. But the worst part is that now they have nearly full access to our civilian infrastructure which is absolutely vital for national security. With these backdoors, they can cripple our power grids, hospitals, food distribution, internet, traffic and almost every other thing which is necessary to keep our country functioning properly. They can do it all from China without firing even a single bullet or bothering to arrange a huge cyber attack.”
“In short, if a war breaks out between USA and China, they can cripple most of our infrastructure within a few hours.” Sawicki said with a sigh. “How did they manage to install such spyware on such a wide scale? Why didn’t we know about it?”
Stilwell looked at the man sitting furthest away from him who spoke in a nervous voice. “I believe we can answer this question. My name is Bryan Kemp and this is Eric Adams. We are representing Cellcom and Mictel respectively. There is one simple reason how Xijiang managed to create such a strong foothold in our country; that is cost. The equipment bought from Xijiang was 25 to 40 percent cheaper than all other comparable competitors. Additionally, they offered us very favourable payment terms which made them the obvious choice. Even the installation and maintenance of first 2 years was included in the cost.
For Cellcom’s upgraded broadband network, we saved 110 million US dollars by choosing Xijiang.
They bid for the projects in open market, had all clearances from all government agencies including FCC, State Department and others. Not just in USA but in 18 other countries when we signed the contract with them. Now they are present in more than 40. There was no way for us to know they had installed backdoors in their equipment.”
Sawicki pointed to the mobile phone in his hand, “So if my mobile phone connection is serviced by either of these two companies, then Chinese have a tap on me?”
Stilwell hurried with his response, “ Not at all. All of our sensitive communications are through a secure network. I believe that it’s impossible for China to eavesdrop on it.”
“Fair enough. But what about phone or internet connection of my son or my parents or your family Mr Stilwell.”
“Well, I can’t really answer that with any certainty.” Stilwell answered uncomfortably.
Sawicki stared at the slide for a few moments and spoke again, “I believe we have one of the best and most extensive surveillance networks on the planet. How did Chinese manage to do all this without us knowing? How did that small Dutch company manage to discover this before us?”
Marias cleared his throat before answering, “We were investigating this for last 4 months. It took a long time due to reduced manpower and budget cuts. Also, we are not completely sure whether Chinese have activated these backdoors in USA already. It’s not like these backdoors continuously steal and transmit data. It’s done in very small bursts, encrypted and hidden very cleverly with normal data which makes it impossible to find without use of supercomputers powered decryption rigs. Axone managed to do it after they managed to lay their hands on a data dump and a partial decryption key posted on dark web.”
“So, what do we do now? Can we stop these backdoors from being used as kill switches and stealing our data? ” Sawicki didn’t have enough technical understanding of the issue. He understood the severity of it only in non-technical terms and wanted simple, to the point answers which could be understood and approved by people in the government with similar or even less knowledge.
In answer, Marias changed the slide and began, “We have some options. Whatever we’ve managed to learn so far indicates that the backdoor needs external commands to do whatever it can. If we can block the incoming commands then it wouldn’t turn on to either steal data or shutdown the network it’s connected to. Our teams are creating software patches which can be installed in majority of Xijiang equipment to do this. We should be able to release a working version in 4-6 days as a short-term measure. If we manage to find out IP addresses of servers the data is uploaded to, then we can investigate them to see what kind of data is being stolen and by whom. We actually do have some addresses, but those servers are just proxies which transmit the data to some other servers for storage and analysis. We suspect that the actual servers where data is stored may be hidden behind 2-3 such layers which will take a lot more time to analyse fully.”
“OK, how long will it take?”
“Once the software patches are ready, it’s up to them to install them as soon as possible.” Marias replied while looking at Kemp and Adams.
Kemp rubbed his neck nervously and responded, “Testing and installation of the patches on our nationwide network should take 8-10 days.”
Stilwell interjected, “8-10 days is too much. This is a matter of national security. Millions of lives are at stake. Once we release the patch, it should be installed in all of your network in no more than 2, at most 3 days. “
Adams opened his mouth as if to say something, but thought better of it.
Sawicki addressed Stilwell, “What if the software patch doesn’t work as expected?”
Stilwell smiled wryly, “Then we cut the cables or let Chinese do what they want. Even this software patch is a temporary solution at best. What we need is complete replacement of Xijiang equipment immediately. It’s not going to be quick, easy or cheap, but this has to be done as soon as possible and with minimal fuss.
There’s another thing. We should not make our vulnerability public for obvious reasons. We are supposed to take this to President too before we take more steps. So whatever options we have should be ready before meeting with him tomorrow.
In any case Cellcom and Mictel should get ready to replace Xijiang with a trusted non-Chinese vendor as soon as possible.”
Adams protested, “If the software patch works, there should not be any need for replacement. Any such step at this point will cause huge losses. We may even go out of business due to this.”
“Do you really want your customers to know that all of their data is being stolen by Chinese and you don’t want to put an end to it? When American public comes to know that their trusted internet and phone providers are routing their data through malware infested Chinese equipment, what do you think will happen? You’ll be lucky if the people just abandon your service. Knowing the pulse of United States as well as I do, both Cellcom and Mictel will be drowned in so many lawsuits that you’ll go bankrupt fighting them all. Take some advice from me. Take a hit of a few hundred millions, replace the equipment and you can save your reputation as well as companies. I don’t really think that you have any other choice.
When this goes to Congress, they’ll ban Xijiang without much hesitation and perhaps even impose restrictions on their clients. It shouldn’t be a very difficult decision for you as you hardly have any choice.”
Adams started, “In last 3 years, 4 non-Chinese companies have taken Xijiang and Wuman to international courts as well as their countries’ local courts and regulation bodies for theft of intellectual property including designs, corporate espionage and unfair trade practices. Not one government agency in any nation lifted a finger against the Chinese even when their own companies were getting screwed. Why would US Congress do anything now?”
Sawicki grimaced, “Are you saying that you knew of Xijiang’s wrongdoings and still gave them business leading up to this situation ? I should get both of you to appear for the committee meeting.”
Kemp and Adams both went pale and hurried to say something but Sawicki raised his hand and addressed Stilwell, “I think we should wrap up this meeting. President needs to hear about this as soon as possible before a decision is made. Is there any other thing that needs to be discussed now? ”