Could a Hand-held EMP Device Threaten Cyber Security?

The ability to disable computers, cars, or other machinery from a distance without being easily detected has fascinated me for a long time. Years ago I worked for defense cub-contractor founded by engineers who had worked on the Airborne LASER Laboratory (ALL). They successfully used a LASER on board an airplane to shoot down drones. The LASER and associated power supplies and cooling were pretty big! Cool stuff.Waves

Directed energy weapons might be a threat to organizational cyber security.

Last year I read in Lifehacker about someone who’d developed a small, handheld device that used an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to jam and potentially damage a mobile phone. The basic idea is that the EMP device uses a High Voltage Converter to convert the energy from a battery to a “very high voltage.” That voltage is then fed through a coil and spark gap (two electrodes separated by a small space). The video of the device shows an impressive spark. The coil creates the electromagnetic pulses as the spark jumps the gap. The video shows how to build the device, but I don’t recommend it unless you know what proper safety precautions to take and you do so.

The video illustrates the device turning off the experimenter’s phone from a few inches away. The EMP device is clearly designed for its simplicity and to demonstrate a technology. With a bit more effort one could probably use the techniques to develop a similarly-functioning device with the power to disrupt a phone, tablet, or laptop a foot or more away. Such a device would likely be illegal and somewhat dangerous, however.

It is easy to imagine someone building such an enhanced unit and using it against a phone or phones in a crowded place. If one did so in a less dense environment, with the necessity of being close to the target, the likelihood of detection would be much greater. In a crowded street or on a train, one could target a particular individual’s phone or laptop reasonably unobtrusively.

I doubt there will be any significant protection unless and until someone actually succeeds in doing this. The protection requires electromagnetic shielding and would likely be expensive to do reliably and in a manner acceptable to consumers (e.g. without adding bulk to the devices). There are multiple external solutions including wire mesh baskets, pouches, and other types of phone holders designed to protect against EMP.

What do you think? Are you or your organization taking precautions against such devices or attacks? Is this idea on your radar? Let us know by tweeting to @learningtree.

To your safe computing,
John McDermott

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