Three Ways to Hack a Printed Circuit Board

PCB production is an underappreciated vulnerability in the global supply chain

By Samuel H. Russ and Jacob Gatlin

In 2018, an article in Bloomberg ­Businessweek made the stupendous assertion that Chinese spy services had created back doors to servers built for Amazon, Apple, and others by inserting millimeter-size chips into circuit boards.

This claim has been roundly and specifically refuted by the companies involved and by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Even so, the possibility of carrying out such a stupendous hack is quite real. And there have been more than a dozen documented examples of such system-level attacks.

We know much about malware and counterfeit ICs, but the vulnerabilities of the printed circuit board itself are only now starting to get the attention they deserve. We’ll take you on a tour of some of the best-known weak points in printed-circuit-board manufacturing. Fortunately, the means to shore up those points are relatively straightforward, and many of them simply amount to good engineering practice.


In order to understand how a circuit board can be hacked, it’s worth reviewing how they are made. Printed circuit boards typically contain thousands of components. (They are also known as printed wiring boards, or PWBs, before they are populated with components.) The purpose of the PCB is, of course, to provide the structural support to hold the components in place and to provide the wiring needed to connect signals and power to the components.

PCB designers start by creating two electronic documents, a schematic and a layout. The schematic describes all the components and how they are interconnected. The layout depicts the finished bare board and locates objects on the board, including both components and their labels, called reference designators. (The reference designator is extremely important—most of the assembly process, and much of the design and procurement process, is tied to reference designators.)

Not all of a PCB is taken up by components. Most boards include empty component footprints, called unpopulated components. This is because boards often contain extra circuitry for debugging and testing or because they are manufactured for several purposes, and therefore might have versions with more or fewer components.

Once the schematic and layout have been checked, the layout is converted to a set of files. The most common file format is called “Gerber,” or RS-274X. It consists of ASCII-formatted commands that direct shapes to appear on the board. A second ASCII-formatted file, called the drill file, shows where to place holes in the circuit board. The manufacturer then uses the files to create masks for etching, printing, and drilling the boards. Then the boards are tested. [READ MORE]