Electromagnetic Interference: A Rising Threat

By Zachary Amos •  Updated: 12/18/22 •  5 min read

Modern living got a lot easier once people started to digitize everything. No more massive stacks of paper or tall filing cabinets to sort through – now everything is accessible with electricity and an internet connection. But where there is vital data, there is someone interested in stealing it. The rise of electromagnetic interference (EMI) has proven to be a worrying threat to the sectors that require digitizing their information.

What is this new tactic cybercriminals are using with increasing frequency? Learn more about what EMI is, how it factors into cybersecurity, and a few security tactics to implement.

What Is Electromagnetic Interference?

According to the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), electromagnetic interference is an interruption that can degrade, obstruct, or limit an electronic device’s operation. It’s exposure to an electromagnetic field (EMF) that can slow down or stop a device from working entirely.

There are often benign occurrences of EMI. Lighting or improperly made electrical products can cause disruption and instigate costly shutdowns. Beyond ensuring someone has tested all the electronics you purchase, there isn’t much protection from these causes. However, those with bad intentions have found ways to use EMFs to their advantage.

EMI and Cybersecurity: What Hackers Can Do

As engineers develop technological advancements, so do cybercriminals. There are various malicious attacks they can enact using electromagnetic interference, one of which happened in 2012. Multiple car navigation systems, over 100 ships, and more than 300 airplanes experienced significant GPS interruptions after North Korea launched a cyberattack on South Korea. While no known damage occurred, this occurrence was likely just a test.

There could also be ways for hackers to cause direct and major damage. It may be possible for someone to disrupt vehicle operations from over 1,500 feet away or cause permanent damage from nearly 50 feet. Such attacks could lead to massive supply chain disruptions and bodily injury.

Aside from physical damage, there are also critical cybersecurity threats to watch out for. Some research has found it’s possible to decrypt sensitive data using EMF to reconstruct outputs from monitors, printers, and keyboards. Others have been able to use high-frequency waves to manipulate voice interface devices.

Another common threat is GhostTouch, where hackers use EMI to control a touchscreen remotely. Scientists were able to perform swipes and taps via an antenna and were successful on nine smartphone models.

Naturally, there are very concerning issues with this, such as a cybercriminal’s ability to obtain sensitive information like passwords and phone numbers. They may also be able to take complete control of the device upon unlocking it, leading to more issues if the phone you carry is for work.

Locking your mobile devices away from high-risk technology may no longer be the solution, either. A team of researchers experimented with Faraday cages – meant for blocking out EMFs – to see if they were truly effective in stopping cyberattacks. They found that low-frequency magnetic fields still penetrate the shield, and malware that can control those fields can steal vital information.

Defense Solutions Against EMI

Because there is a lot of damage cybercriminals can do with EMI, you must find effective ways to safeguard yourself or the company you work for. Here are some defense solutions you can utilize to protect against these attacks and behave proactively in the event of a cyberattack.

1. Install Vulnerability Management Tools

Hopefully, you will never experience a cyberattack, but the chances of that are dwindling. From phishing scams to EMI, hackers are getting smarter, so it’s best to prepare yourself for a breach before it happens. Luckily, you can install various vulnerability management tools to keep yourself aware of any suspicious activity.

Different tools can offer penetration testing, compliance reporting, and data asset management. Being proactive now can save you from a massive headache – and potentially huge losses – later.

2. Enable Passwords or Facial Verification for Major Actions

If a hacker has obtained control of your device through EMI, they will be able to access anything they want – unless you implement security measures. Make sure your electronics require you to input a password, fingerprint or PIN, or scan your face before enacting any significant changes.

3. Get a Signal Jammer

You could also call this method signal shielding, and it’s one of the solutions the research team that investigated Faraday cages recommended. There are a couple of ways you could go about jamming unwanted electromagnetic interference.

The first is to obtain a commercial magnetic field generator, which can create signals hundreds of times stronger than what a computer emits. This tactic effectively overrides the device’s magnetic field. The second utilizes equipment that detects and cancels out EMFs so attackers cannot gain access.

4. Use Cable Shielding

Just because EMI can come from non-threatening sources doesn’t mean you should do nothing about it – they can still cause issues that can lead to cyberattacks. Foil or braided shields can block out any of the noise coming from the cables. Additionally, practice excellent cable management by keeping them straight and separating them from power wiring.

5. Create Zoning Rules

Putting your electronics in a Faraday cage is no longer enough to protect against cybersecurity breaches. If you are a decision-maker or work with the IT department, you may want to speak to the team about leaving mobile devices as far away from sensitive technology as possible. Creating zoning rules helps prevent EMI from coming into contact with critical equipment, potentially saving it from an attack.

Get a Jump Start by Protecting Against Electromagnetic Interference

EMI is a new and effective way of hacking. Cybercriminals can use these invisible waves to break into your technology and create a host of cybersecurity problems. Safeguard yourself against this rising threat by being proactive and using safe methods.

Zachary Amos

Zachary is a tech writer and the features editor of ReHack Magazine where he covers cybersecurity and all things technology.