A device capable of detecting strength, frequency and direction of electromagnetic attacks disabling power grids and computers has been developed by German researchers.
Though mostly known from science fiction and action movies, devices using electromagnetic field to disable electronic systems present a realistic danger. Until today, potential victims of such an attack would not be able to tell what is causing their computers to breakdown as the electromagnetic waves are neither visible nor otherwise noticeable.
Recently, researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Technological Trend Analysis INT in Germany have developed an instrument capable of measuring very high electromagnetic filed strengths from very short pulses, thus detecting a possible attack without being damaged itself.
“We can identify the type and location of the source of the invisible attack as well as its duration as though we had a sixth sense. Those affected by the attack can use this information to mount a rapid and appropriate protective response,” said Fraunhofer researcher Michael Jöster.
The detector consists of four specialised antennas constantly sampling the environment around the device that needs protection. Each of the antennas covers a quadrant of 90 degrees and detects all types of electromagnetic sources. A high-frequency module preconditions the signals for measurement and determines when an electromagnetic pulse starts and stops. A computer in a monitoring station connected via an optical conductor then calculates the values for the signal and displays results on a screen.
In the past, various criminal groups have already successfully performed such attacks to disrupt computer networks of banks or companies, taking advantage of the resulting chaos to bypass monitoring points or overcome alarm systems.
In Germany, for example, some gangs used suitcase-sized high-power microwave sources to crack security systems of limousines.
Depending on the field strength, the attacker using these high-power microwaves can be located several meters from the target of the attack.
“Located In the right position, it is enough to press a button to trigger the pulse. Just like in Ocean’s Eleven or Matrix, the electronic systems nearby can fail or be damaged,” Jöster explained.
Electronic devices are designed to withstand a certain amount of electromagnetic interference, otherwise they would not be able to operate reliably in the vicinity of other gadgets. Depending on the category of usage, the systems have to comply with specific EMC requirements. These are significantly higher for industrial applications than for common things like smartphones, televisions, or stereo equipment.
“The importance of electronic components will continue to increase in the future. Shielding individual devices from electromagnetic radiation completely would be possible, though extremely expensive. Systems are needed that can detect these kinds of attacks. If you know what is attacking, you can also react correctly to it,” Jöster said.