Key Takeaways from Apple’s Lengthy Rebuttal of Bloomberg’s ‘Chinese Spy Chip’ Story

4 minute read
| Analysis

Apple published a lengthy and detailed rebuttal of Bloomberg reporting claiming that China had successfully snuck tiny “spy chips” onto servers bought by Apple and other Silicon Valley tech giants. The piece, which was published in Bloomberg’s Businessweek publication, included an emphatic denial from Apple on its part in the story.

Apple China flag

Apple in China

Apple’s new statement, however, goes much deeper, denying most of the details in Bloomberg’s reporting and relaying Apple’s efforts since 2017 to correct the story as it was being developed. Below are our key takeaways from the statement.

Key Takeaways from Apple’s Statement

  • Apple claims that Bloomberg contacted Apple on multiple occasions, internally investigated the subject of those contacts, concluded there was nothing to
    the story, and refuted the story to Bloomberg.
  • Apple claims vehemently that it has never found malicious chips or other hardware attacks on its servers. Related, Apple said it has never contacted the FBI about such issues (as they didn’t exist), and that the FBI has never contacted Apple about such an investigation.
  • Apple believes the kernel of Bloomberg’s reporting may lie in a one-off instance where Apple discovered an infected driver in a single Super Micro server in 2016. Internal investigations determined it was an accidental infection, rather than a targeted attack aimed at Apple.
  • Contrary to Bloomberg’s reporting, Apple said Siri and Topsy never shared servers, and that Siri was never deployed on Super Micro servers. Apple emphasized that none of its Super Micro servers were ever found to contain malicious chips.
  • Apple denied being under a gag order, which is essentially proof that it is not. If Apple were under a gag order, it would be able to neither confirm nor deny that it was.

Apple’s Statement in Full

The October 8, 2018 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek incorrectly reports that Apple found “malicious chips” in servers on its network in 2015. As Apple has repeatedly explained to Bloomberg reporters and editors over the past 12 months, there is no truth to these claims.

Apple provided Bloomberg Businessweek with the following statement before their story was published:

Over the course of the past year, Bloomberg has contacted us multiple times with claims, sometimes vague and sometimes elaborate, of an alleged security incident at Apple. Each time, we have conducted rigorous internal investigations based on their inquiries and each time we have found absolutely no evidence to support any of them. We have repeatedly and consistently offered factual responses, on the record, refuting virtually every aspect of Bloomberg’s story relating to Apple.

On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, “hardware manipulations” or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server. Apple never had any contact with the FBI or any other agency about such an incident. We are not aware of any investigation by the FBI, nor are our contacts in law enforcement.

In response to Bloomberg’s latest version of the narrative, we present the following facts: Siri and Topsy never shared servers; Siri has never been deployed on servers sold to us by Super Micro; and Topsy data was limited to approximately 2,000 Super Micro servers, not 7,000. None of those servers have ever been found to hold malicious chips.

As a matter of practice, before servers are put into production at Apple they are inspected for security vulnerabilities and we update all firmware and software with the latest protections. We did not uncover any unusual vulnerabilities in the servers we purchased from Super Micro when we updated the firmware and software according to our standard procedures.

We are deeply disappointed that in their dealings with us, Bloomberg’s reporters have not been open to the possibility that they or their sources might be wrong or misinformed. Our best guess is that they are confusing their story with a previously-reported 2016 incident in which we discovered an infected driver on a single Super Micro server in one of our labs. That one-time event was determined to be accidental and not a targeted attack against Apple.

While there has been no claim that customer data was involved, we take these allegations seriously and we want users to know that we do everything possible to safeguard the personal information they entrust to us. We also want them to know that what Bloomberg is reporting about Apple is inaccurate.

Apple has always believed in being transparent about the ways we handle and protect data. If there were ever such an event as Bloomberg News has claimed, we would be forthcoming about it and we would work closely with law enforcement. Apple engineers conduct regular and rigorous security screenings to ensure that our systems are safe. We know that security is an endless race and that’s why we constantly fortify our systems against increasingly sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals who want to steal our data.

The published Businessweek story also claims that Apple “reported the incident to the FBI but kept details about what it had detected tightly held, even internally.” In November 2017, after we had first been presented with this allegation, we provided the following information to Bloomberg as part of a lengthy and detailed, on-the-record response. It first addresses their reporters’ unsubstantiated claims about a supposed internal investigation:

Despite numerous discussions across multiple teams and organizations, no one at Apple has ever heard of this investigation. Businessweek has refused to provide us with any information to track down the supposed proceedings or findings. Nor have they demonstrated any understanding of the standard procedures which were supposedly circumvented.

No one from Apple ever reached out to the FBI about anything like this, and we have never heard from the FBI about an investigation of this kind — much less tried to restrict it.

In an appearance this morning on Bloomberg Television, reporter Jordan Robertson made further claims about the supposed discovery of malicious chips, saying, “In Apple’s case, our understanding is it was a random spot check of some problematic servers that led to this detection.”

As we have previously informed Bloomberg, this is completely untrue. Apple has never found malicious chips in our servers.

Finally, in response to questions we have received from other news organizations since Businessweek published its story, we are not under any kind of gag order or other confidentiality obligations.

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Bryan: Whenever I encounter a disputed story with a plausible thesis such this one, namely attempts by China to obtain both government, including military, and private sector intel and IP, in the context of heavily and precisely documented operations of the same with names of offenders attached as background, yet are denied by named key parties with vehemence, precision and documentation by said parties, I go through the following thought process, although sometimes it’s as simple as pattern recognition. First, which of these parties is the more credible; specifically, which has the best track record on honesty, transparency and truthfulness… Read more »