Some opera singers have the power to break glass, but a Microsoft engineer has discovered a rather odd quirk - a Janet Jackson song that has the power to crash laptops.
Raymond Chen, the company’s principal software engineer, has identified Jackson’s 1989 pop hit Rhythm Nation as a cybersecurity vulnerability that contains a sound that crashes the hard drives of old laptops.
According to Mr Chen, an unnamed “major computer manufacturer” discovered that some of their computers were crashing when trying to play the song, and playing the song on one laptop could even crash another computer nearby that was just minding its own business.
Announcing the discovery in a blog post, Mr Chen said: “A colleague of mine shared a story from Windows XP product support. A major computer manufacturer discovered that playing the music video for Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation’ would crash certain models of laptops. I would not have wanted to be in the laboratory that they must have set up to investigate this problem. Not an artistic judgement.”
Explaining the reason behind the crash, Mr Chen said: “It turns out that the song contained one of the natural resonant frequencies for the model of 5400 rpm laptop hard drives that they and other manufacturers used.”
Because sounds are simply acoustic waves, there is a wavelength or frequency for each material that can create the most vibration, known as the medium's resonant frequency.
‘And then they discovered something extremely weird…’
The Mitre Corporation, a nonprofit that focuses on cyber security, found that frequency was in the Janet Jackson music video.
Mitre describes the issue as a security vulnerability which could allow an attacker to force the system to crash using the audio signal from the Rhythm Nation music video.
Even stranger, Mr Chen found it did not even have to be the laptop that the music video was playing on. Simply playing the music video on one laptop could cause another close by to crash.
“One discovery during the investigation is that playing the music video also crashed some of their competitors’ laptops. And then they discovered something extremely weird: Playing the music video on one laptop caused a laptop sitting nearby to crash, even though that other laptop wasn’t playing the video!” he added.