Simanaitis Says

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ACCORDING TO White House press secretary Sean Spicer, we’re supposed to identify “air quotes” in presidential tweets about surveillance. And, says presidential senior advisor Kellyanne Conway, we’re to acknowledge “microwaves that turn into cameras. We know this is a fact of modern life.”

No doubt an alternative fact.

For news of these and other trumped-up inanities, see the Politics article by Julie Hirschfeld Davis in The New York Times, March 13, 2017.

Also, in that same newspaper the next day, March 14, 2017, there appeared a Technology article by John Markoff titled “It’s Possible to Hack a Phone With Sound Waves, Researchers Show.” As another reference on hacking, see “Hey! You! Get Off My Cloud!” here at SimanaitisSays last month.

The “Cloud” research revealed that monitoring tiny differences in operations of shared processing can lead to eavesdropping. The hacking by sound waves is another potential security loophole in the ubiquity of our computer-based lives. What separates these two from executive-branch flapdoodle is science.

Sound-wave hacking resides in a device’s accelerometer. As its name implies, an accelerometer senses acceleration, a change in velocity, loosely, any jiggle.

Your smartphone’s operating chip has a built-in accelerometer. This tells it how to display an image when you turn the phone through 90 degrees. Other gizmos incorporating accelerometers include radio-controlled toy cars, drones and automotive navigation systems.

By the way, the Tapley Meter of R&T lore is an accelerometer, albeit a fluid-driven mechanical one rather than an electronic gizmo. The ones incorporated in digital devices are microelectromechanical systems, MEMS, for short.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and University of South Carolina likened their sound hacking of accelerometers to an opera singer’s ability to shatter a wine glass with just the right high note. Kevin Fu, one of the researchers, said, “You can think of it as a musical virus.”

Kevin Fu is one of the University of Michigan researchers involved with the innovative sound hacking. This and the following image by Joseph Xu/University of Michigan in The New York Times, March 14, 2017.

Sound, after all, is a vibration in the air, and thus it’s a jiggle that can be sensed by an accelerometer. If the sound is made up of computer commands, it can enter a device’s operating system through its accelerometer and potentially cause havoc.

Noted The New York Times article, “The flaw, which researchers found in more than half of the 20 commercial brands from five chip makers they tested, illustrates the security challenges that have emerged as robots and other kinds of digital appliances have begun to move around the world.”

For full details, see the paper to be presented at IEEE European Symposium on Security and Privacy, held next month in Paris. Included in the paper are suggested changes chip manufacturers can make to protect against the flaw.

Sounds can influence the operation of MEMS accelerometers in digital devices.

Also reported in The New York Times article was a Stanford University demonstration in 2014 that “an accelerometer could be used surreptitiously as a rudimentary microphone. And in 2011, a group from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology demonstrated the use of an accelerometer in a smartphone to decode roughly 80 percent of the words being typed on a nearby computer keyboard by capturing vibrations from the keyboard.”

Last, rest easy while you munch your microwave popcorn: A microwave doesn’t have an accelerometer. Also, now that it’s identified, this electronic security problem can be readily remedied.

Alas, to the best of my research, there’s nothing other than common sense that can separate truth from implicit air quotes. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

2 comments on “SCIENCE AND “AIR QUOTES”

  1. Grey McGown
    March 15, 2017

    Denis…this reminds me of the ill failed Navy A-12 at GD here
    in Fort Worth. A 10 story building was built with no windows to
    keep spies from bouncing sound waves off the window to collect
    info inside on the plane. The A-12 was canceled by Defense
    Secretary Dick Cheney. Several billion dollars were spent and
    the last law suit was settled two years ago. All the public now
    has to show is a mock up at the B-36 Museum here in Fort Worth.
    It’s sitting in the Texas weather and is a sad sight…
    here’s a pic..

  2. simanaitissays
    March 15, 2017

    Hi, Grey,
    I inserted breaks in the text of your response to preclude run-on. I was afraid to mess with the link, however.

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