Bad rhythm: Janet Jackson song resonates poorly with some old hard drives

Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation music video would have caused quite the commotion back in the old Windows XP days. If you’re still running a certain model of an OEM hard drive from the Windows XP days, you may still be liable to experience the same thing today. However, said commotion was not solely down to the choreography or phenomenal beats.

Rythym Nation by Janet Jackson came with a peculiar quirk. That quirk involved crashing the hopes and dreams of the person watching it, along with their hard drive.

Microsoft writer Raymond Chen reveals the somewhat bizarre tale of Janet’s computer stomping abilities in a recent blog post.

What was happening here?

Back in the olden times, it turns out that specific flavours of hardware running Windows XP did not like Janet busting a move. Some different models of laptop, from competitors of the first brand, would also crash. Even more spectacularly: simply playing the song on one device could make a second device nearby crash.

Old style mechanical hard drives are slowly being replaced by SSD drives. You may find them being used by gamers for cheap and easy excess game storage, but the mechanical hard drive’s time in the sun is over.

Mechanical drives have a whole lot of vibration going on inside, and this is where the drives become vulnerable to very peculiar forms of frequency based risk. Indeed, using the resonant frequency of the drive itself to make it stop working properly is not a new concept. Low frequency noise was used in tests during 2018 to break CCTV and prevent a laptop’s operating system from working.

Dancefloor devastation for your hard drive

Janet, ever the innovator, was clearly one step ahead of security researchers. By chance, it turns out that Rhythm Nation matched a resonant frequency for the hard drive used in these particular types of laptop.If you run into a mechanical drive in a device these days, there’s a good chance it’ll be a 7,200 RPM drive (RPM is the number of revolutions the drive’s platter makes per minute). The drives struck here, smooth criminal style,were specific models clocking in at 5,400RPM.

Custom filters were added by manufacturers in the audio pipeline. These filters swung into action at the first sign of a Rhythm Nation intro and removed the frequencies as the audio played.

A CVE: better late than never

This rhythm-based tale of woe seemingly has no end. The Register noticed an entry on the list of Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs), listed as CVE-2022-38392. From the description, surely Janet’s finest hour:

A certain 5400 RPM OEM hard drive, as shipped with laptop PCs in approximately 2005, allows physically proximate attackers to cause a denial of service (device malfunction and system crash) via a resonant-frequency attack with the audio signal from the Rhythm Nation music video.

From further down the page, a rather relevant warning:

Disclaimer: The record creation date may reflect when the CVE ID was allocated or reserved, and does not necessarily indicate when this vulnerability was discovered, shared with the affected vendor, publicly disclosed, or updated in CVE.

As I close the lid on my 2005 Windows XP laptop for the last time, never a truer word was spoken. 

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