From the Josef K Guide to Tech terminology:

EMP gun: n. Always suspected but never seen, the EMP -- electromagnetic pulse -- weapon is the chupacabra of cyberspace. Accordingly, it is said to be responsible for much nettlesome corporate computer and bank failure, almost always in countries where such things cannot be verified.

Usage: Pelham was amused when the overly gullible newspaper reporter published his frank lies about Russian computer programmers knocking over international banks with emp guns made from stolen Radio Shack equipment.


One of the most persistent fairy tales propagated in information warfare circles is the urban legend of the electromagnetic pulse gun. When it shows up in the mainstream media, courtesy of Reuters or the Associated Press, it looks something like this:

"Dateline BRUSSELS -- Criminals can use the Internet to create powerful electromagnetic weapons that threaten society with chaos and destruction, a Latverian military officer warned Friday.

"Underground sites on the Internet contain instructions on how to put together dangerous weapons that use electromagnetic or high-energy pulses that cripple computer systems, telephone systems and alarms, according to Victor von Doom, chief engineer at the Defense Materials division of the Latverian armed forces' electronic systems division.

"High-tech goods found everywhere in the world can be used to create powerful weapons using recipes found on the Internet," said von Doom at a meeting of the International Association Of Quack Computer Consultants in Europe.

"The problem is spreading from Russia, von Doom said."

Pretty scary. But sensationalistic garbage that was actually published by one of the wire news services. Crypt News only changed the names of the parties involved.

[For a more recent example from the newsmedia, consider 20/20's coverage of radio frequency weapons in the "Postscript."]

Crypt News took the time to talk to some scientists at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque. Neal Singer pronounced it an interesting urban legend. Sandia, of course, is one of the national laboratories responsible for weaponization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The lab has also done extensive research into shielding against and generation of electromagnetic pulse effects.

Awareness of electromagnetic pulse effects happened in 1962 when a 1.4 megaton nuclear weapon was detonated in Test Shot Starfish. The Starfish shot was conducted 400 kilometers high above the mid-Pacific and the electromagnetic pulse from it destroyed satellite equipment and blocked high frequency radio communications across the Pacific for 30 minutes. "Strings of street lights in Oahu went out and hundreds of burglar alarms set off when the pulses overloaded their circuits," wrote William Arkin in "S.I.O.P.: The Strategic U.S. Plan for Nuclear War." A scientist at Lawrence Livermore, Nicholas Christofilos, had predicted this effect earlier in the rear, calculating that high energy particles from a nuclear burst high in the atmosphere would become trapped in the Earth's magnetic field, producing a series of lightning-like pulses.

Since then, the idea of using electromagnetic effects as a death ray, of sorts, produced without a messy 1.4 megaton nuclear explosion, has become increasingly interesting to fans of the weird quack-science of non-lethality and, for some reason, computer security experts and teenage hackers. For example, Crypt Newsletter frequently receives poorly spelled advertisements put together by teenagers advertising schematics for electromagnetic computer death rays for about $5.00 cash U.S. These, along with instructions for turning the telephone handset into an electric chair, software for melting the circuitry in a PC, and recipes for poisoning enemies with arsenicals -- come dirt cheap on pink photocopying paper or cheesy-looking pamphlets sold at "Survival Books" in north Hollywood.

Interestingly, Winn Schwartau did much to embed the myth of the emp weapon in the mainstream imagination with his 1994 book "Information Warfare." In it, Schwartau wrote of secret U.S. missiles used against Iraq in the Gulf War to short circuit communications through bursts of microwaves. It was an interesting mistake based on a more prosaic reality having nothing to do with emp weapons. In the Gulf War, the Navy used a few Tomahawks containing spools of carbon filament. The filament was deployed across Iraq's power lines and stations by the Tomahawks, causing black-outs by short circuit around Baghdad.

Since 1992 the tale of the emp gun has been seized upon by hackers rather too eager to sell gullible journalists on a pseudo-reality of imposing feats of technical legerdemain. (For example, mention of it as a hacker tool contaminates Alvin and Heidi Toffler's "War and Anti-War," published in 1993. The EMP gun appearances are also cyclical, many times attached every year to Winn Schwartau, Inc.'s information warfare conventions in Washington, DC. Journalists attend these types of things and report that the EMP gun has just been invented. Almost like clockwork -- appearances in the media, be it 1997, 1998, 1999, even mere months apart, such reporters have almost no memory on subject -- and the EMP gun is "invented" anew, rising from its own ashes, another phoenix of mystifying electronic danger that puts us all at risk. However, what is usually "invented" is little more than a glorified stun baton that can make a television screen blink or a radio speaker emit static at about ten paces.)

In another such story, "Hack Attack," published as a cover feature in a 1996 issue of Forbes ASAP magazine, a number of "dangerous ex-hackers" played the game, "Let's lie to the journalist." The emp-weapon-used-against-Iraq myth was deployed:

Forbes writer: Have you ever heard of a device that directs magnetic signals at hard disks and can scramble the data?

Dangerous ex-hackers, in unison: Yes! A HERF [high energy radio frequency] gun.

Dangerous ex-hacker A: This is my nightmare. $300: a rucksack full of car batteries, a microcapacitor and a directional antenna and I could point it at Oracle . . .

Dangerous ex-hacker B: We could cook the fourth floor.

Dangerous ex-hacker A: . . . You could park it in a car and walk away. It's a $300 poor man's nuke . . .

Dangerous ex-hacker A, on a roll: They were talking about giving these guns to border patrol guards so they can zap Mexican cars as they drive across the border and fry their fuel injection . . .

Dangerous ex-hacker A, really piling it on: There are only three or four people who know how to build them, and they're really tight lipped . . . We used these in the Persian Gulf. We cooked the radar installation.

In other parts of the article the "dangerous ex-hackers" discuss the ease of building what purports to be a $300 death ray out of Radio Shack parts and car batteries. In a rare moment of intellectual honesty and self-scrutiny the "dangerous ex-hackers" admit there are a lot of "snake oil salesmen" in the computer security business.

The sticking point of the legend, according to Sandia's Singer and others Crypt News interviewed, is the generation of militarily interesting amounts of electromagnetic pulse. To generate the effects ascribed to the notional weapon requires power fluxes that would kill everyone triggering the device and everyone in the vicinity of the detonation and target. Far easier to use Tim McVeigh's fuel oil-soaked fertilizer truck bomb.

John Pike, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Space Policy Project puckishly commented, "[This] is sorta like Dr. Strangelove saying that a Doomsday Machine 'would not be dificult'! It is easily within the reach of even the smallest . . . nuclear power."

Nevertheless, the myth of electromagnetic pulse weapons remains powerful, gaining lodgment in the damndest places. Indeed, in Crypt Newsletter 42 one article discussed how a U.S. Army course on information warfare in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was instructing about them in its sub-lecture devoted to weaponry.

Now, Crypt News provides a thumbnail list of the myth's characteristic hearsay.

1. The EMP gun is always seen in remote places, as in "Boris Badenov, a computer security consultant, said criminal hooligans had destroyed a bank network in Dvinsk with an emp gun and escaped with 8 millions rubles in blackmail money."

2. The EMP gun is always developed by adjunct professors, fringe military reservists, or hackers. For example: "Glip Popple, an adjunct professor of information warfare at the Technical University of Gobble-Wallah in Australia, said he had built a working emp gun for $2,000," or "Uber-Fiend, a hacker for a group calling itself Karn Evil 9, told Reuters correspondents he had built a 12 gigaJoule electromagnetic pulse projector."

3. EMP guns are always secret, protected by classification, as in, "W. E. van Azathoth, a computer scientist genius working for the northern Virginia company Nefari US Electronics, had written a working paper on constructing emp weapons from four bags of sour cream and onion potato chips, a roll of aluminum foil and a positronic hammer -- it was immediately seized and classified by the National Security Agency.

4. Sometimes only unnamed "experts" talk about EMP guns, as in: "Experts have revealed to Associated Press reporters that U.S. banks lost $90 billion due to electromagnetic pulse attacks in 1996 -- the assaults untraceable, the perpetrators -- unknown."

5. Illicit EMP gun blueprints are on the Internet. Usage: "This reporter was told by a very highly placed Pentagon consultant that plans for EMP guns were on the Internet and that teen hooligans and criminal gangsters had obtained them."

6. Infrequently, an "EMP gun" -- more accurately, anything that can emulate the electromagnetic emissions of a large, unshielded electric motor -- will be demonstrated on assorted pieces of electronic equipment at conversational range. Results will be trivial or unremarkable and the demonstrator, often someone with a cargo cult-like devotion to the memory and work of Nikola Tesla, will dress them up as quite the opposite. Invariably, the demonstrations are conducted by people or agencies who just "coincidentally" happen to offer consulting services to defend against EMP guns.

Indeed, it must be considered that in a country where a googly-eyed eunuch can persuade a large group of educated adults to poison themselves in preparation for hitching a ride on a flying saucer and a significant portion of the citizenry cannot be convinced that aliens didn't land at Roswell, the EMP gun must be a lead pipe cinch to sell.

Postscript: Interestingly, an EMP gun inventor, David Schriner, showed up on ABC's 20/20 in mid-February 1999 to demonstrate the effects of it for an overawed Diane Sawyer. After donning fancy protective suits and unusual-looking copper mesh headgear, Schriner tested his weapon on Sawyer's corvette and a white limousine. At a range of about 5-10 feet and with the weapon pointed directly into the automobiles' open engine compartment, Schriner's electromagnetic pulse gun made Sawyer's idling corvette . . . run roughly. [Crypt News notes it can make any car's engine stop permanently, not just hesitate, at a range of five feet with a sledgehammer aimed directly into an open engine compartment.] Once, said Sawyer, the electric locks in her car's doors went up and down, too. While Sawyer stood well away from her car, farther away from it than Schriner's contraption, electronic videocameras inside the car continued to work during the firing of the "weapon."

During the segment, Sawyer claimed "results" of testing of electromagnetic pulse on a Cobra helicopter at Junction Ranch in China Lake were "classified." Curiously, Crypt Newsletter covered the results of this test which were published on the Web over a year ago by the government. [Found in the attached links at the end of this story.] Crypt News must now assume posting a paper on the World Wide Web constitutes "classification."

Besides David Schriner's demonstration of a short range microwave's ability to occasionally stall an idling, parked car at extremely close range, Sawyer's story -- like all Crypt News has seen on the subject, relied a great deal upon hearsay.

Now, here comes the tricky part.

Sawyer also claimed on 20/20: "Russian criminals have used an RF weapon, we're told, to disarm security and rob a bank."

Crypt Newsletter repeats from the top of the story:

"Pelham was amused when the overly gullible newspaper reporter published his frank lies about Russian computer programmers knocking over international banks with emp guns made from stolen Radio Shack equipment."


"Boris Badenov, a computer security consultant, said criminal hooligans had destroyed a bank network in Dvinsk with an emp gun and escaped with 8 millions rubles in blackmail money."

Read carefully: Crypt Newsletter made these statements up in 1997 as humorous examples -- jokes -- to be used as material for this article. In the context of this piece, they are amusing fictions.

Apparently, Crypt Newsletter's jokes about EMP guns have travelled sufficiently far away from their original source to wind up gulling Diane Sawyer on 20/20 in 1999.

Update: March 03, 1998: One of Diane Sawyer's sources for the 20/20 broadcast was Victor Sheymov, a KGB defector who advertised himself as a communications expert. Sheymov told Sawyer the KGB has used a microwave weapon to start a fire in the U.S. embassy in 1997 for the purposes of annoyance and in hope that firemen would be summoned. Using the firemen as cover, the idea was to plant listening devices in the embassy.

Sheymov said the same thing before the House Joint Economic in February 1999, describing what can only be characterized as trivial effects of alleged Russian EMP gun use:

Sheymov: Another example of a [EMP] attack was the KGB's manipulation of the United States Embassy security system in Moscow in the mid-80s. This was done in the course of the KGB operation against the Embassy which targeted the U.S. marines there. The security system alarm was repeatedly falsely triggered by the KGB's induced [radio frequency] interference several times during the night. This was an attempt to annoy and fatigue the marines [sic] and to cause the turning of the "malfunctioning" system off.

Woo - a ringing alarm and, next, an alleged minor fire -- pretty scary stuff. Surely the cloth a national emergency is woven from.

Sheymov: Additional example of an [EMP] attack was when the KGB used it to induce fire in one of the equipment rooms in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1977. A malfunction was forced on a piece of equipment. It caught fire, which spread over a sensitive area of the Embassy. The KGB tried to infiltrate its bugging technicians into the sensitive area under the cover of the firefighters who arrived immediately after the fire started.

Subsequent to his appearance on 20/20, Sheymov was placed on the payroll of the National Security Agency where what was unclassified trivial testimony for TV reporters is, apparently, now classified. [Crypt Newsletter asks the question: How does one measure the incentive for alleged KGB defectors to embroider their stories for American handlers in hopes they will be put on a taxpayer-derived salary?]

Update -- March 23, 1999: Yellow Peril -- The EMP gun hallucination is now intermingled with the hysteria over Chinese spying.

In a mid-March Newsweek story on alleged Chinese penetration of the U.S. network of nuclear bomb-making national laboratories, magazine reporters write:

"[The Chinese] may also have stolen secrets about U.S. efforts [emphasis added] to devise a nuclear weapon tailored to create an electromagnetic pulse; a man-made lightning bolt that would short out anything in an enemy nation that uses electricity."

By the 19th, the Newsweek rumor had quickly mutated into a tale of stolen electromagnetic pulse guns, courtesy of the New York Times.

Initially, during a White House press conference, President Clinton was asked by a Fox News reporter:

"Mr. President, you said just a short while ago that no one has reported to you they suspect Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear labs during your administration, sir. But sources tell Fox News, and we are reporting this evening, that China stole the technology for electromagnetic pulse weapons from several nuclear labs during your first term in office, sir, and that the Chinese have successfully tested these weapons in China. And the sources also say that the administration, at least, was aware of this.

"Can you tell us, sir, were you not personally aware? Are you concerned about this? And what will be your administration's response to the report?"

This raises an interesting question. How can the President determine if a weapon is stolen if it is not known to exist?

Ambushed by phlogiston, the President nevertheless gamely tried to answer:

President Clinton: "Well, you didn't say what the source of what they sold was. You say they 'stole, is that the word you used?"

Fox reporter: "Yes, sir, the technology for EMP weapons, from four of the 11 nuclear labs."

The President susbsequently said he knew nothing of the matter and that he forgot little of what went on during national security briefings.

By Saturday, the New York Times had picked it up. This time, the statements on EMP guns, not nuclear weapons tuned for EMP broadcast, was attributed to the standard EMP red herring, the anonymous government source.

The reader will notice the confusion and chronic abuse of anonymous sourcing common to all of these stories.

From the New York Times, "When asked by a reporter from Fox News about whether China stole information from the labs about a nuclear device called an electromagnetic pulse warhead, during his tenure, the president said he knew nothing about that."

"A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Friday night that intelligence reports show that China is satisfied that it has obtained the technology to develop a so-called electromagnetic gun. That gun, the official said, shoots an electromagnetic pulse."

"It is not a nuclear weapon, however," continued the New York Times, "and is different from the electromagnetic pulse warhead in the U.S. nuclear arsenal."

In June 1997, the House Joint Economic Committee entertained testimony from a retired general, Robert Schweitzer, who claimed China was attempting to obtain EMP gun technology from Russia. During the same hearing, a great deal of effort was spent in bloviation about the Red Chinese peril.

In early 1999, a KGB-defector named Victor Sheymov claimed on national television that the KGB had used EMP guns to attack the U.S. embassy in Moscow, causing an alarm system to ring and the instigation of a minor fire. As a result, Sheymov was hired as a consultant to the National Security Agency.

One month later, amidst more Yellow Peril hysteria, the Chinese are accused of stealing not only the plans for a standard nuclear weapon, but also electromagnetic pulse guns, which have not been demonstrated to exist, and -- maybe -- plans for a nuclear weapon-tuned to create maximum EMP. [Perhaps the NSA should be paying "the national labs" for consultation?]

The reader may notice how none of these rumors, or news reports, appear to be on the same page.

Update -- April 11, 1999: The war against Yugoslavia has spawned its own EMP weapon chupacabras.

Rumors of new weaponry in use by the US Air Force floating around the Usenet and in and out of mainstream news organizations which should know better appear to stem from a brief article of extremely suspect credibility originally published by the Moscow ITAR-TASS news service on March 29.

In "US Uses [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] as Test Site for New Bomb," reporter Anatoly Yurkin writes:

"The USA is using Yugoslavia as a testing ground for its latest secret offensive weapons. The ITAR-TASS correspondent was told today at the Defence Ministry that, besides cluster bombs, which are extensively being used during the air strikes, the American bomber crews are using experimental samples of the latest aircraft bombs, the specifications of which differ considerably from those of conventional offensive weapons.

"This aircraft bomb was developed in secret laboratories in Los Alamos, where the first American nuclear bomb was created. The new weapon is designed to disrupt the enemy's radio-electronic equipment. When it explodes, it generates an electric impulse, similar to the electromagnetic waves during a nuclear explosion. In its military specifications this bomb is a cross between a conventional weapon and a nuclear one, which provides grounds for regarding it as a weapon of mass destruction.

"It is reported that the US air force is using two strategic B-2 bombers, developed with the 'Stealth' technology, to test the latest American aircraft bomb."

Crypt Newsletter reminds its readers that "official Russian news agencies" like ITAR-TASS have much in common with editorial practices at tabloids like the Weekly World News and National Enquirer. Traditionally, intelligence analysts have regarded it as a good source of fairy tales.

For example, on December 16, Komsomolskaya Pravda, like ITAR-TASS, one of "Russia's largest circulation and most outspoken dailies," published a feature entitled: "Electronic 'Hiroshima' Already Hidden in Moscow; 21st Century Wars Will Be Like Computer Horror Games."

An interesting and rather amusing myth passed on by the Russian news agency was framed around the appearance of Richard Pryce, one of two British hackers who broke into the Department of Defense's Rome Labs installation at Griffiss Air Force Base in 1994. Pryce and his [accomplice], claimed the Russian article, launched a "[space] shuttle" remotely and switched all of "New York's traffic lights to green."

In the same piece, the EMP weapon chupacrabras is invoked. However, instead of U.S. bombers using it over Yugoslavia, the situation is quite the opposite: The Russian military will use EMP bombs, which it calls "beer cans," to destroy U.S. "supercomputers."

One hallmark of the EMP weapon chupacabras is its extreme flexibility.

One month it can be your secret weapon; the next it can be your enemy's.

Updated -- September 9, 1999: Schwartau, Inc's. annual information warfare convention in Washington, DC., rolled out the same electromagnetic pulse gun demonstration David Schriner deployed for Diane Sawyer on 20/20 in February 1999. The primary difference was if you had a television and could tune to Sawyer in February, the demo was free, but if you went to Schwartau, Inc. in September it cost you $1000 or so. (Oops, better hope your boss who gave you use of the company credit card for it isn't reading this.)

Schwartau, Inc's. blurb for its $1000-buck-a-seat infowar convention read: "On Sept. 9 at InfowarCon-99, the first ever (Crypt News emphasis added) public conference demonstrations of an 1870 technology developed by Heindrich Hertz [sic] generates powerful electromagnetic effects on modern technology.

First ever, Crypt Newsletter adds, only since an identical dog-and-pony show in February 1999 on primetime network TV.

From the 20/20 transcript of Diane Sawyer's piece on David Schriner's Tesla ray in February of this year:

DIANE SAWYER (voice over) But will it work? We take precautions with our cables and computerized cameras by enclosing them in copper shielding. [David] Schriner and his assistant use copper mesh masks to protect their eyes and face.

DAVID SCHRINER: Ray one is ready for testing.

DIANE SAWYER: The first target, two computers. The objective -- to crash them.


DIANE SAWYER : Every short burst has the energy of 100 radio stations, a million watts. Watch the computer on the left. In just three seconds, it crashes. And a few seconds later, so does the other one.

Real pants-wetting stuff, this material: "first ever" crashing of a PC at about ten paces and guys in funny-looking copper wire hats. Add this to KGB officer Victor Sheymov's claims (made in the same Diane Sawyer 20/20 broadcast in February) about the same "first ever" technology being used to set off a burglar alarm and start a small fire at the US embassy in Moscow a couple decades ago -- still surely the whole cloth national security emergencies are woven from.

Virus Myth's Rob Rosenberger puckishly comments:

"It takes a 20 MegaWatt focused radio pulse just to crash Win9x? Bah! I'd write off the demo as a complete flop. The FAA believes a suicidal maniac can bring down a 747 with nothing more than a Rio. You can attack the cockpit from the rear of the plane, I might add. 'Listen up! I downloaded the final 43 seconds of the Sgt. Pepper's CD and I'm prepared to use it!' Seaman Tesla needs remedial DeVry training if you ask me."


More relevant links: