Researchers discover how music can be used to trigger the deadly release of pathogens

Researchers discover how music can be used to trigger the deadly release of pathogens

Achamyeleh, Al Faruque and Barua (left) conducted part of their research on the potential threat to negative pressure facilities in an actual clean room designed to prevent external exposure to dangerous microbes. Credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, have found that an attacker armed with little else can disrupt the safe operation of a negative pressure room — a space in a hospital or biological research laboratory designed to protect the outside from exposure to deadly pathogens. rather than a smartphone.

According to UCI’s cyber-physical systems security experts, who shared their findings with attendees at the recent Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer and Communications Security Conference in Los Angeles, the mechanisms that control air flow in and out of biocontainment facilities can be tricked into thinking that irregularly functioning sound of a certain frequency, perhaps hidden in a popular song.

“One could play music loaded on a smartphone or have it broadcast from a television or other audio device in or near the negative pressure room,” said senior co-author Mohammad Al Faruque, a UCI professor of electrical and computer engineering. “If that music is embedded with a tone that matches resonant frequency pressure control in one of these spaces, could cause it to malfunction and leak deadly microbes.”

The infrastructure for heating, ventilation and air conditioning maintains the flow of fresh air and contaminated air from a given space. HVAC systems in scientific facilities typically include room pressure monitors, which in turn use differential pressure sensors that compare the atmosphere inside and outside the rooms.

Researchers discover how music can be used to trigger the deadly release of pathogens

Attack model overview – A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Credit: Anomadarshi Barua et al

Researchers said commonly used differential pressure sensors (DPS) are vulnerable to remote manipulation, posing a previously unrealized threat to biosecurity facilities. They tested their hypothesis on eight industry-standard DPSs from five manufacturers, showing that all devices operate at resonant frequencies in the audible range and are therefore susceptible to tampering.

“When sound waves collide with the diaphragms inside the DPS, it begins to vibrate at the same frequency,” said lead author Anomadarshi Barua, a UCI doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering. “An informed attacker can use this technique to artificially move the diaphragm, changing the reading pressure and causes the entire system to fail.”

He said attackers can thwart negative pressure chamber systems in a variety of ways. They could manipulate them wirelessly or pose as maintenance personnel to place an audio device in or near such a room. “A more sophisticated attack could involve perpetrators embedding sound-emitting technologies into the DPS before it is installed in the biocontainment facility,” Barua said.

In their presentation at the conference, the researchers proposed several countermeasures to prevent a musical attack on biosecurity facilities. Sound attenuation can be achieved by extending the sampling tube at the DPS port by as much as 7 meters. The team also proposed enclosing the pressure vent in a box-like structure. Both of these measures would reduce the sensitivity of the DPS, Barua said.

Al Faruque said this research project shows the vulnerability of embedded systems to random attacks, but stressed that with a little planning and forethought, facilities can be hardened against sabotage.

Al Faruque and Barua were joined in the study by Yonatan Gizachew Achamyeleh, UCI Ph.D. student of electrical engineering and computer science. The study was published as part of Proceedings of the 2022 ACM SIGSAC Conference on Computer and Communication Security.

More information:
Anomadarshi Barua et al., A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, Proceedings of the 2022 ACM SIGSAC Computer and Communications Security Conference (2022). DOI: 10.1145/3548606.3560643

Full paper (arXiv preprint): A wolf in sheep’s clothing: the spread of deadly pathogens in the guise of popular music

Citation: Researchers Discover How Music Can Be Used to Trigger Deadly Pathogen Release (2022, November 17) Retrieved November 18, 2022 from

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