It sounds like something out of an urban legend: Some Windows XP-era laptops that use 5400 RPM spinning hard drives can reportedly crash when exposed to Janet Jackson’s 1989 hit “Rhythm Nation.”
But Microsoft Software Engineer Raymond Chen sticks with the story in a blog post published earlier this week, and the vulnerability has been given an official CVE ID by The Miter Corporation, giving it more credibility.
According to Chen, CVE-2022-38392 was originally discovered by “a major computer manufacturer”, and can affect not only the laptop playing the song, but also adjacent laptops from other PC companies. The particular model of the hard drive in question – again from an unnamed manufacturer – would crash because “Rhythm Nation” used some of the same “natural resonance frequencies” that the drives used, disrupting their operation.
Anyone attempting to mimic this problem on their own will encounter several obstacles, including the age of the laptops involved and a total lack of specificity about the hard drives or computer models. The CVE entry mentions “a particular 5400 RPM OEM hard drive, as shipped with laptop PCs in about 2005” and references Chen’s post as the primary source. And while some Windows XP-era laptop hard drives are still around, after nearly two decades, it’s more likely that most of them died of natural causes.
The problem was apparently also partially solved by the PC manufacturer at the time. Chen says the company addressed the problem “by adding a custom filter to the audio pipeline that detected and removed the offending frequencies during audio playback.” This wouldn’t solve things completely, as these laptops’ hard drives would still crash if exposed to another device playing the song. But “Rhythm Nation” had apparently waned in popularity enough by the early 2000s that the problem didn’t become a widespread problem.
Sound Frequencies can interfere with the operation of spinning hard drives, as demonstrated in this popular old YouTube video of a man increasing the disk’s latency and hurting performance by yelling at a server rack. So even if we can’t confirm first-hand that “Rhythm Nation” is breaking old laptops, we can certainly say that stranger things have happened.