Research Demonstrates How Sound Can Kill Your Gadgets

In the near future, automation and integration will be the norm. Each device will communicate with one another across the world far more than they already do in today’s internet-dominated world.

Sounds like technological utopia right? Well, not so much. At least, not in the face of the potential threat that this new research has just revealed recently.

Disruption via Waves of Waves

Credit via Alibaba, Black Hat

Researchers from the Chinese security firm Alibaba revealed in a presentation last week their findings of how sound could affect modern electronic devices. Specifically, they demonstrated how specially designed ultrasonics can potentially harm many tech-related things that our devices and gadgets use today.

To understand why sound could affect such a large portion of used and installed electronics today, we must first know that many microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) today rely heavily on relative measurement for control, navigation, and orientation. Gyroscopes used on drones for instance, typically use tiny tuning forks, providing accurate position adjustment by measuring the vibrations of two separate wave sources.

According to the presentation, a specially designed “sonic gun” could very well have the capacity to knock down any of these systems by tuning into the resonant frequency of the micro-tools or sensors used. The disruptive sonic wave will cause an erroneous registry of environmental information, rendering the devices inoperable. For the demonstration, the researchers showed two smartphones, an auto-balancing robot, and a drone. Each of the devices malfunctioned in their own specific way as the sonic gun was used, showing varying degrees of disruption and/or damage.

Disrupting the Disruption?

Credit via Flickr by Stefan Kellner

While risk assessment for weaponized ultrasonic systems was given serious consideration, the researchers have stated that a well “armored” device can inherently protect itself from such threats. After all, the plastic casing for a device can considerably weaken the sound signal, at least enough for the harmful tool to be unable to keep the exact resonant frequency.

That being said, the attacker can simply boost the signal to overcome the protection issue. An adequately high-power emitter might still be able to penetrate through the device’s barrier casing.

This is exactly why the next step of their research is to now conceptualize systems that could prevent such attacks using what they have learned so far. One typical idea was to use the same technology of noise-cancelling headphones: by emitting a disruptive sonic frequency for the disruption itself without harming the sensors its supposed to protect. Another concept is to simply make the material reflective to sound, greatly lessening the impact of the sonic waves that do get through.

In any case, Alibaba seems to be adamant to keep discovering new things about this potential threat. To that end, its researchers have even pointed out within the same presentation that standard VR systems might also be susceptible to the same risks.

Source: Black Hat 2017

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