It sounds like something out of an urban legend: Some Windows XP-era laptops using 5400 RPM spinning hard drives can allegedly 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 vulnerability has been issued an official CVE ID by The Mitre Corporation, lending it more credibility.
According to Chen, CVE-2022-38392 was originally discovered by “a major computer manufacturer,” and it can affect not just the laptop playing the song but adjacent laptops from other PC companies as well. The specific hard drive model at issue—again from an unnamed manufacturer—would crash because “Rhythm Nation” used some of the same “natural resonant frequencies” that the drives used, interfering with their operation.
Anyone trying to independently recreate this problem will face 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 certain 5400 RPM OEM hard drive, as shipped with laptop PCs in approximately 2005” and links back to Chen’s post as a primary source. And while some Windows XP-era laptop hard drives may still be kicking out there somewhere, after almost two decades, it’s more likely that most of them have died of natural causes.
The issue was also apparently partially resolved by the PC manufacturer at the time. Chen says the company addressed the problem “by adding a custom filter in the audio pipeline that detected and removed the offending frequencies during audio playback.” This wouldn’t completely fix things since these laptops’ hard drives would still crash if they were exposed to another device that was playing the song. But “Rhythm Nation” had apparently declined enough in popularity by the early 2000s that the issue 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 disk latency and hurting performance by screaming at a server rack. So even if we can’t confirm firsthand that “Rhythm Nation” wrecks old laptops, we can definitely say that stranger things have happened.