U.S. News and World Report - 12/16/02

   Crossed Signals
   The wireless threat to our electronic infrastructure BY IVAN AMATO

   Aboard a commuter jet landing at an Illinois airport in September
   2001, a cellphone accidentally left on in an overhead bin caused
   critical cockpit instruments to go haywire. The air traffic controller
   instructed the pilots to break off the approach and circle around for
   a second try. A year earlier, a Boeing 757 on autopilot at 15,000 feet
   "pitched up rather sharply" in an "uncommanded climb," in the pilot's
   words. He disengaged the autopilot and leveled out the plane. The
   cause was never pinned down, but the pilot noted that the plane "acted
   as if it were under the influence of some electronic glitch or outside

   Neither  incident,  among  50  recorded  in the most recent updates of
   NASA's  Aviation  Safety Reporting System, ended badly, but they are a
   cautionary   tale  for  travelers  who  pooh-pooh  flight  attendants'
   requests to turn off electronic devices. They also highlight a growing
   threat   to   our  microchipped,  networked,  wireless  way  of  life:
   electromagnetic  interference  (EMI),  a problem that goes well beyond

   Think  of  a hair dryer in the bathroom causing snowy static on the TV
   in  the  living  room,  or a cab driver's radio-carried voice suddenly
   intruding  on your cordless phone conversation. That's electromagnetic
   interference  of  a  more  or  less  harmless  kind.  But  the growing
   popularity  of  wireless links between computers and everything hooked
   to  them  is  creating  more sources of interference, while the wildly
   successful march of electronics miniaturization is making devices more
   vulnerable to it.

   Spooky.  Each isolated case sounds like a fluke: bizarre readings on a
   plane navigation system, a car engine-control system that cuts off, an
   automatic  garage  door  opening  for no apparent reason. But together
   they  signal  a  trend  that has convinced some experts that EMI could
   prove  a  major  technological vulnerability-bad enough if accidental,
   and  potentially  far  worse if exploited by criminals, terrorists, or
   military adversaries. "Computers are more susceptible to unintentional
   and  intentional  electromagnetic interference than ever before," says
   Todd  Hubing,  president of the Electromagnetic Compatibility Society.
   "With  adequate  knowledge  and  resources,"  he  adds, "virtually any
   electronic   system   could   be   disabled,  or  even  destroyed,  by
   electromagnetic interference."

   Some  experts  think  it is unlikely to become more than an annoyance.
   John  Pike,  head of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-area think tank,
   says,  "I  worry  more  about  truckloads  of  fertilizer  and suicide
   bombers."  Electromagnetic interference should be easy to tame, he and
   others  say,  with simple design changes. But intentional interference
   may  prove hard to defeat, say Hubing and others. Criminals reportedly
   have begun experimenting with high-powered EMI-based gadgets to defeat
   computers  and  alarms.  The  U.S.  military,  for  its  part,  has  a
   classified program to develop EMI weapons, which would disarm an enemy
   by  destroying  or  temporarily  scrambling control and communications

   For now, the multitudes of electrical and electronic gadgets that fill
   our  lives  usually  ignore  one  another, their crisscrossing signals
   reaching  their  intended  destinations without doing harm. The credit
   goes  in  large part to people like Hubing-an unseen army of engineers
   and  regulators  acknowledged  in  the  label on almost any electronic
   device  saying,  "Tested  to comply with FCC standards." Usually, this
   certifies  that  the device's electromagnetic emissions-just about any
   electrical  device  emits  some-will not interfere with licensed radio
   services, including cellular communications.

   But  the  regulators'  efforts  may not be able to keep up. The iconic
   success  story  of  technology-the  miniaturization  of circuitry-is a
   major  reason. Chips operate at ever faster speeds and lower voltages,
   making  them  more  vulnerable  to interference. On some overpasses in
   Europe,  for  example,  car  engines  have suddenly cut off when radio
   signals  generated  by high-voltage lines under the roadway interfered
   with  their electronic control units. Certain cellphones, operating at
   2.4  gigahertz  (billion  cycles  per second), reportedly go dead near
   some  washing  machines  because  of  interference  from the machines'
   motors or electronic controls.

   Microwaves-the  high-frequency  radio signals that are the vehicle for
   cellphone calls and for the wireless interplay between seemingly every
   box   on  sale  at  Circuit  City-are  especially  troublesome.  Their
   frequencies  often  match  those  at  which  chips  operate, and their
   wavelengths  are  just  right  for wending their way into a device. If
   chips,  circuit  boards,  and  other  components  pick  them  up  like
   antennas,  they  can  cause digital hiccups. Ones morph into zeros, or
   vice  versa.  Erroneous  information  flows, computers crash, and this
   time you can't blame Bill Gates.

   Burnout. If your neighbor can set off your car alarm accidentally when
   he  orders  pizza  using  his  cellphone,  the  effects  of a powerful
   microwave  beam  can  be far more dramatic. Computer circuits can burn
   out  entirely,  as  they  did in 1997 in an office building in Germany
   when  circuit  boards  picked  up  microwave  emissions  from a nearby
   airport's  primary  radar  system.  And  in  March  2001, thousands of
   drivers  in  the  Bremerton, Wash., area discovered that their keyless
   locks had stopped working. Suspicions fell on EMI from the warship USS
   Carl Vinson, which was just arriving in port.

   To  U.S.  military  researchers, such incidents point to opportunities
   and dangers, which have spurred R&D budgeted at nearly $42 million
   this year. Places like the Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico
   test  equipment ranging from aircraft to computers to GPS units to see
   how  vulnerable  it  is  to  high-power  microwaves, and how it can be
   protected. Everything seems to matter, including the type of chip, how
   close  internal  wires  are  to an antenna, and the specific microwave
   wavelengths to which the device is exposed. As one expert put it, move
   a wire 2 inches and the situation can go from benign to dangerous.

   The  military has "hardened" its most strategic electronic assets. But
   the  computers  in  military  equipment  generally  come from the same
   places  that you and I buy ours. And, says James Benford, president of
   Microwave  Sciences Inc. in Lafayette, Calif., and a widely sought EMI
   consultant,  "The  PC  on  your  desk  is probably the most vulnerable
   computer in the world right now."

   That creates an opening for weapons designers. "A lot of work has been
   going  on  in  the  military  area around the world on electromagnetic
   sources  that  would  be very, very powerful and could harm electronic
   equipment,"  says  Manuel  Wik,  a  specialist in strategic electronic
   systems with the Swedish government's Defense Materiel Administration.
   He  has  overseen  experiments  in which a trailer-size system stopped
   vehicles in their tracks at 1,000 yards by frying their engine-control
   computers.  Similar  systems  could  suppress  an  incoming  missile's
   navigational  electronics.  Conversely,  a microwave bomb-an explosive
   device  emitting a powerful microwave pulse-could knock out an enemy's
   air-defense systems. Wik and many others are convinced that EM weapons
   are going to be a major part of 21st -century warfare.

   Pachinko    poaching.    Also,   perhaps,   of   21st-century   crime.
   Electromagnetic  weapons may have hit the streets already-and not just
   in  the  recent movie Oceans 11, where an EMI gadget temporarily kills
   power in Las Vegas. In one case, criminals in Japan's Aichi Prefecture
   allegedly  used a concealed high-energy-radio-frequency device in 1998
   to  fool  a  pinball-like  pachinko machine into spitting out cash. In
   another, a thief purportedly used a similar gadget to defeat the alarm
   system of a jewelry store in St. Petersburg, Russia.

   "There  are a lot of devices that are quite easily made," says William
   A.  Radasky,  president  of  Metatech  Corp.  in  Goleta,  Calif., and
   cochairman  with  Wik  of  a unit recently set up by the International
   Electrotechnical  Commission  to  study  the threats posed by criminal
   EMI.  "It  does  not  take  very high energy levels to upset or damage
   equipment," Radasky notes.

   Consider 19-year-old Rostislav Persion, who taught himself skills that
   could  cause mayhem in the hands of an EMI hacker. While still in high
   school   in   Nanuet,   N.Y.,   Slava,  as  he  calls  himself,  began
   experimenting  in  his  garage with high-power microwaves. "I actually
   made  my  phone  lines go dead and my computer too." He admits to once
   having  had  "malicious  thoughts"  but says he is now consumed by the
   sheer challenge of working with the technology.

   Slava   buys   the  components  he  needs-microwave  tubes,  banks  of
   capacitors  for  building up high voltages, and antennas for directing
   and  concentrating  the microwave energy-from commercial suppliers and
   writes  his  own  control  software. Now studying engineering at State
   University  of  New  York-Stony  Brook,  Slava says he was inspired by
   David  Shriner,  a  former  Defense  Department engineer who is now an
   independent  consultant.  Shriner,  sometimes working under government
   contract,  has been investigating how much damage a person can do on a
   modest  budget  by  putting together high-power microwave systems from
   off-the-shelf components.

   He and his colleagues have subjected cars, radios, medical intravenous
   pumps,  computers,  and  other  equipment  to their homemade, portable
   gadgetry.  The  result? Says Shriner: "We have disrupted and destroyed