Suche innerhalb des Archivs / Search the Archive All words Any words

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[] USNWR 16.12.02: The wireless threat to our electronic infrastructure,

U.S. News & World Report December 16, 2002

The wireless threat to our electronic infrastructure


Aboard a commuter jet landing at an Illinois airport in September 2001, a 
cellphone accidentally left on in an overhead bin caused critical cockpit 
instruments to go haywire. The air traffic controller instructed the pilots 
to break off the approach and circle around for a second try. A year 
earlier, a Boeing 757 on autopilot at 15,000 feet "pitched up rather 
sharply" in an "uncommanded climb," in the pilot's words. He disengaged the 
autopilot and leveled out the plane. The cause was never pinned down, but 
the pilot noted that the plane "acted as if it were under the influence of 
some electronic glitch or outside influence."

Neither incident, among 50 recorded in the most recent updates of NASA's 
Aviation Safety Reporting System, ended badly, but they are a cautionary 
tale for travelers who pooh-pooh flight attendants' requests to turn off 
electronic devices. They also highlight a growing threat to our 
microchipped, networked, wireless way of life: electromagnetic interference 
(EMI), a problem that goes well beyond airplanes.

Think of a hair dryer in the bathroom causing snowy static on the TV in the 
living room, or a cab driver's radio-carried voice suddenly intruding on 
your cordless phone conversation. That's electromagnetic interference of a 
more or less harmless kind. But the growing popularity of wireless links 
between computers and everything hooked to them is creating more sources of 
interference, while the wildly successful march of electronics 
miniaturization is making devices more vulnerable to it.

Spooky. Each isolated case sounds like a fluke: bizarre readings on a plane 
navigation system, a car engine-control system that cuts off, an automatic 
garage door opening for no apparent reason. But together they signal a 
trend that has convinced some experts that EMI could prove a major 
technological vulnerability­bad enough if accidental, and potentially far 
worse if exploited by criminals, terrorists, or military adversaries. 
"Computers are more susceptible to unintentional and intentional 
electromagnetic interference than ever before," says Todd Hubing, president 
of the Electromagnetic Compatibility Society. "With adequate knowledge and 
resources," he adds, "virtually any electronic system could be disabled, or 
even destroyed, by electromagnetic interference."

Some experts think it is unlikely to become more than an annoyance. John 
Pike, head of, a Washington-area think tank, says, "I 
worry more about truckloads of fertilizer and suicide bombers." 
Electromagnetic interference should be easy to tame, he and others say, 
with simple design changes. But intentional interference may prove hard to 
defeat, say Hubing and others. Criminals reportedly have begun 
experimenting with high-powered EMI-based gadgets to defeat computers and 
alarms. The U.S. military, for its part, has a classified program to 
develop EMI weapons, which would disarm an enemy by destroying or 
temporarily scrambling control and communications systems.

For now, the multitudes of electrical and electronic gadgets that fill our 
lives usually ignore one another, their crisscrossing signals reaching 
their intended destinations without doing harm. The credit goes in large 
part to people like Hubing­an unseen army of engineers and regulators 
acknowledged in the label on almost any electronic device saying, "Tested 
to comply with FCC standards." Usually, this certifies that the device's 
electromagnetic emissions­just about any electrical device emits some­will 
not interfere with licensed radio services, including cellular communications.

But the regulators' efforts may not be able to keep up. The iconic success 
story of technology­the miniaturization of circuitry­is a major reason. 
Chips operate at ever faster speeds and lower voltages, making them more 
vulnerable to interference. On some overpasses in Europe, for example, car 
engines have suddenly cut off when radio signals generated by high-voltage 
lines under the roadway interfered with their electronic control units. 
Certain cellphones, operating at 2.4 gigahertz (billion cycles per second), 
reportedly go dead near some washing machines because of interference from 
the machines' motors or electronic controls.

Microwaves­the high-frequency radio signals that are the vehicle for 
cellphone calls and for the wireless interplay between seemingly every box 
on sale at Circuit City­are especially troublesome. Their frequencies often 
match those at which chips operate, and their wavelengths are just right 
for wending their way into a device. If chips, circuit boards, and other 
components pick them up like antennas, they can cause digital hiccups. Ones 
morph into zeros, or vice versa. Erroneous information flows, computers 
crash, and this time you can't blame Bill Gates.

Burnout. If your neighbor can set off your car alarm accidentally when he 
orders pizza using his cellphone, the effects of a powerful microwave beam 
can be far more dramatic. Computer circuits can burn out entirely, as they 
did in 1997 in an office building in Germany when circuit boards picked up 
microwave emissions from a nearby airport's primary radar system. And in 
March 2001, thousands of drivers in the Bremerton, Wash., area discovered 
that their keyless locks had stopped working. Suspicions fell on EMI from 
the warship USS Carl Vinson, which was just arriving in port.

To U.S. military researchers, such incidents point to opportunities and 
dangers, which have spurred R&D budgeted at nearly $42 million this year. 
Places like the Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico test equipment 
ranging from aircraft to computers to GPS units to see how vulnerable it is 
to high-power microwaves, and how it can be protected. Everything seems to 
matter, including the type of chip, how close internal wires are to an 
antenna, and the specific microwave wavelengths to which the device is 
exposed. As one expert put it, move a wire 2 inches and the situation can 
go from benign to dangerous.

The military has "hardened" its most strategic electronic assets. But the 
computers in military equipment generally come from the same places that 
you and I buy ours. And, says James Benford, president of Microwave 
Sciences Inc. in Lafayette, Calif., and a widely sought EMI consultant, 
"The PC on your desk is probably the most vulnerable computer in the world 
right now."

That creates an opening for weapons designers. "A lot of work has been 
going on in the military area around the world on electromagnetic sources 
that would be very, very powerful and could harm electronic equipment," 
says Manuel Wik, a specialist in strategic electronic systems with the 
Swedish government's Defense Materiel Administration. He has overseen 
experiments in which a trailer-size system stopped vehicles in their tracks 
at 1,000 yards by frying their engine-control computers. Similar systems 
could suppress an incoming missile's navigational electronics. Conversely, 
a microwave bomb­an explosive device emitting a powerful microwave 
pulse­could knock out an enemy's air-defense systems. Wik and many others 
are convinced that EM weapons are going to be a major part of 21st -century 

Pachinko poaching. Also, perhaps, of 21st-century crime. Electromagnetic 
weapons may have hit the streets already­and not just in the recent movie 
Oceans 11, where an EMI gadget temporarily kills power in Las Vegas. In one 
case, criminals in Japan's Aichi Prefecture allegedly used a concealed 
high-energy-radio-frequency device in 1998 to fool a pinball-like pachinko 
machine into spitting out cash. In another, a thief purportedly used a 
similar gadget to defeat the alarm system of a jewelry store in St. 
Petersburg, Russia.

"There are a lot of devices that are quite easily made," says William A. 
Radasky, president of Metatech Corp. in Goleta, Calif., and cochairman with 
Wik of a unit recently set up by the International Electrotechnical 
Commission to study the threats posed by criminal EMI. "It does not take 
very high energy levels to upset or damage equipment," Radasky notes.

Consider 19-year-old Rostislav Persion, who taught himself skills that 
could cause mayhem in the hands of an EMI hacker. While still in high 
school in Nanuet, N.Y., Slava, as he calls himself, began experimenting in 
his garage with high-power microwaves. "I actually made my phone lines go 
dead and my computer too." He admits to once having had "malicious 
thoughts" but says he is now consumed by the sheer challenge of working 
with the technology.

Slava buys the components he needs­microwave tubes, banks of capacitors for 
building up high voltages, and antennas for directing and concentrating the 
microwave energy­from commercial suppliers and writes his own control 
software. Now studying engineering at State University of New York-Stony 
Brook, Slava says he was inspired by David Shriner, a former Defense 
Department engineer who is now an independent consultant. Shriner, 
sometimes working under government contract, has been investigating how 
much damage a person can do on a modest budget by putting together 
high-power microwave systems from off-the-shelf components.

He and his colleagues have subjected cars, radios, medical intravenous 
pumps, computers, and other equipment to their homemade, portable gadgetry. 
The result? Says Shriner: "We have disrupted and destroyed them."

Liste verlassen: 
Mail an infowar -
 de-request -!
- infopeace -
 de mit "unsubscribe" im Text.