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Attackers can cause potentially harmful hard drive and operating system crashes by playing sounds over low-cost speakers embedded in computers or sold in stores, a team of researchers demonstrated last week.
The attacks use sonic and ultrasonic sounds to disrupt magnetic HDDs as they read or write data. The researchers showed how the technique could stop some video-surveillance systems from recording live streams. Just 12 seconds of specially designed acoustic interference was all it took to cause video loss in a 720p system made by Ezviz. Sounds that lasted for 105 seconds or more caused the stock Western Digital 3.5 HDD in the device to stop recording altogether until it was rebooted.
The technique was also able to disrupt HDDs in desktop and laptop computers running both Windows and Linux. In some cases, it even required a reboot before the PCs worked properly.
The technique works because audible sound can cause an HDD’s head stack assembly to vibrate outside of normal bounds. The vibrations push the head far enough from the center of the drive track to temporarily prevent writing. Ultrasonic sound, by contrast, can create false positives in an HDD’s shock sensor, which is designed to prevent a head crash. This causes a drive to unnecessarily park its head. Besides being used against computers and surveillance systems, the researchers said the attack might also target medical devices that use magnetic HDDs.
The research is largely esoteric, because there are already much easier ways to temporarily take down computers and embedded systems. Still, it raises the possibility that, one day, attackers may have a new means to perform denial-of-service attacks.