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[infowar.de] 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
BY IVAN AMATO
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 GlobalSecurity.org, 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
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.
"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."
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