Playing Janet Jackson's 'Rhythm Nation' on some older laptops causes them to crash. Microsoft veteran Raymond Chen explains why.
According to Chen, a "major computer manufacturer" at some point in the 2000s discovered that Rhythm Nation, a Jackson hit released in 1989, was crashing some laptops and caused a nearby laptop to crash even though it wasn't playing the song.
The reason, explains Chen, is that Rhythm Nation contained one of the "natural resonant frequencies" on laptops with 5400rpm hard drives. Fortunately, devices with disk spinning at 5400rpm are only common in older laptops. He heard the story from a fellow employee working on a Windows XP support issue. Most laptops today come with Solid State Drives (SSD) with no spinning disk, so it should be safe to play Rhythm Nation on YouTube from these.
"It turns out that the song contained one of the natural resonant frequencies for the model of 5400rpm laptop hard drives that they and other manufacturers used," explains Chen.
Via The Register, the bug has now been issued a Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) identifier by MITRE, the US government-backed organization that maintains the CVE system for tracking security bugs. It describes CVE-2022-38392 as a denial of service flaw caused by a "resonant frequency attack" via the Rhythm Nation music video.
"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," MITRE says.
As a reader of The Register pointed out, "resonant feedback" is a well-known engineering issue and is why soldiers break step when crossing a bridge. British soldiers marching in unison reportedly caused the Broughton suspension bridge to collapse in 1831 due to mechanical resonance induced by soldiers' footsteps.
The OEM whose laptops were affected by Jackson's song worked around Rhythm Nation by including a custom filter in the audio pipeline that detected and removed the specific frequencies during audio playback. Chen wonders if the vendor remembered to remove the filter now that it serves no purpose.
"And I'm sure they put a digital version of a "Do not remove" sticker on that audio filter. (Though I'm worried that in the many years since the workaround was added, nobody remembers why it's there. Hopefully, their laptops are not still carrying this audio filter to protect against damage to a model of hard drive they are no longer using.)"