Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation is a form of cyberattack

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The music video embedded above has the power to crash computers.

Back in the hazy days of Windows XP, a major computer manufacturer discovered that playing the music video for Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation’ would crash some models of laptops. And not just its own laptops in some quirky coding error: it was affecting competitors’ laptops, too.

This is a tale taken from Raymond Chen’s blog and book ‘The Old New Thing’, and it recounts a bug fix story told to Chen by a colleague in Windows XP product support.

“And then they discovered something extremely weird,” Chen says. “Playing the music video on one laptop caused a laptop sitting nearby to crash, even though that other laptop wasn’t playing the video!”

Now Rhythm Nation goes hard, but there was something else going on here.

“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.”

Luckily there was a sort-of easy fix, which involved programming a custom filter to remove the frequencies causing the crash on impacted laptops. That would take care of most unexpected crashes, though does leave these laptops open to crashing if the sound is played from an unpatched external audio source. 

Or perhaps some sort of audio-based low-key cyberattack.

The Register has spotted that this ‘fun’ flaw has been registered as a Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) by The Mitre Corporation in 2022. Yes, Microsoft resurfacing this fun story and its fix has actually led to a new vulnerability being registered, as it’s still technically exposable.

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It’s listed as CVE-2022-38392, and is described as: “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.”

Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation is an actual method of cyberattack—albeit for some very old laptops with slow-spinning hard drives.

But it just goes to show you can’t necessarily rule anything out when debugging a computer.  Intermittent screen flickering? Could be from your neighbour whistling. Blue Screen of Death? Cosmic rays could be to blame. 

No seriously, it really could be cosmic rays. A tiny stray radiation particle whizzing through space could alter your PC just enough to change how it behaves in a moment. 

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