Older laptop hard drives would crash when exposed to Janet Jackson music

Older laptop hard drives would crash when exposed to Janet Jackson music

It sounds like an urban legend: some Windows XP-era laptops using 5400 RPM spinning hard drives could be forced to crash when exposed to Janet Jackson’s 1989 hit “Rhythm Nation.”

But Microsoft software engineer Raymond Chen stands by the story in a blog post published earlier this week, and The Miter Corporation released an official CVE ID to lend more credibility to the vulnerability.

According to Chen, CVE-2022-38392 was originally discovered by “a major computer manufacturer” and could affect not only laptops that play Song, but also adjacent laptops from other PC companies. The particular hard drive model at issue—again from an unnamed manufacturer—would crash because “Rhythm Nation” tapped into some of the “natural resonant frequencies” the drives used, disrupting their operation.

Anyone trying to reproduce this problem independently will face several obstacles, including the age of the laptop and the lack of specificity of hard drives or computer models. The CVE entry mentions “a typical 5400 RPM OEM hard drive shipped with a laptop PC circa 2005” and links back to Chen’s post as the primary source. And while there may still be some Windows XP-era laptop hard drives out there somewhere, nearly two decades later, it’s more than likely that most of them died of natural causes.

The problem was partially resolved by the PC manufacturer at the time. Chen says the company “solved the problem by adding a custom filter to the audio pipeline that detected and removed the offending frequencies during audio playback.” This won’t completely fix it because the hard drives of these laptops will still crash if they come in contact with another device playing the song. But by the early 2000s the popularity of “Rhythm Nation” had apparently waned enough that the issue had not become a widespread problem.

Sound frequencies can interfere with the operation of spinning hard drives, as shown in this popular, old YouTube video of a man increasing disk latency and degrading performance by screaming at a server rack. So while we can’t personally confirm that “Rhythm Nation” destroyed old laptops, we can definitely say that stranger things have happened.

Sneha Mali

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