Invasion of the Hardware Snatchers: Cloned Electronics Pollute the Market

Fake hardware could open the door to malicious malware and critical failures


In February 2014, the FBI charged a Florida man, Marc Heera, with selling a cloned version of the Hondata s300, a plug-in module for the engine computer that reads data from sensors in Honda cars and automatically adjusts the air-fuel mixture, idle speed, and other factors to improve performance. The plug-in also allows users to monitor the engine via Bluetooth and make their own adjustments. The clones certainly looked like the genuine product, but in fact they contained circuit boards that had likely been built in China, according to designs Heera had obtained through reverse engineering. Honda warned that cars using the counterfeits exhibited a number of problems, including random limits on engine rpm and, occasionally, failure to start. Devices that connect to an engine control unit (ECU) present particular safety concerns; researchers have demonstrated that, through ECU access, they could hijack a car’s brakes and steering.

It’s not just car parts that are being cloned; network routers and parts for routers are also popular targets for cloners. That may not sound particularly scary until you consider that a hacker who has control of a cloned router can then intercept or redirect communications on the network. Look at the 2010 case of Saudi citizen Ehab Ashoor, who was convicted of purchasing cloned Cisco Systems gigabit interface converters with the intent to sell them to the U.S. Department of Defense. The devices were to be installed in Iraq in Marine Corps networks used for security systems and for transmitting troop movements and relaying intelligence from remote field operations to command centers.

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