IEEE Spectrum

The Hidden Dangers of Chop-Shop Electronics

On 17 August 2011, Boeing warned the U.S. Navy that an ice-detection module in the P-8A Poseidon, a new reconnaissance aircraft, contained a “reworked part that should not have been put on the airplane originally and should be replaced immediately.” In a message marked “Priority: Critical,” the company blamed the part, a Xilinx field-programmable gate array (FPGA), for the failure of the ice-detection module during a test flight.

How could this have happened? Xilinx, based in San Jose, Calif., is a highly respected manufacturer of FPGAs, and Boeing bought the ice-detection module containing the suspect part from BAE Systems, a reputable British defense company. The trouble occurred somewhere in the supply chain upstream from BAE, which wound through companies in California, Florida, Japan, and China. However, retracing that FPGA’s path led not to Xilinx but to a Chinese company called A Access Electronics. It apparently had turned a quick profit by selling used Xilinx parts as new. BAE ended up purchasing about 300 suspect FPGAs, many of them untested. Fortunately, most had not yet been installed on planes....

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