Can sound be used as a weapon? 4 questions answered #USEmbassyHavana

 

File 20180226 122025 13a2tfq.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
What happened to people inside this building, the U.S. Embassy in Havana? U.S. State Department

Kevin Fu, University of Michigan and Wenyuan Xu, Zhejiang University

 

Editor’s note: Government and academic investigators continue to probe reports from Cuba that, starting in 2016 and continuing through 2017, U.S. and Canadian diplomats and tourists may have been subjected to a “sonic weapon,” damaging their hearing, causing nausea, speech problems and potentially even mild brain injuries.

Electrical engineering and computer science professors Wenyuan Xu from Zhejiang University and Kevin Fu from the University of Michigan explain their research, which suggests a more likely scenario of sloppy engineering, and what ultrasound frequencies (which can be used to transmit information gathered by listening devices) traveling through the air can – and can’t – do.

1. What is ultrasound useful for?

The most commonly known use for ultrasound – high-frequency sound waves human ears can’t hear – is a medical device used for examining a fetus during pregnancy. But there are plenty of other uses. Many offices have occupancy sensors that use ultrasound to detect movement and keep the lights on when someone is in a space, and off when nobody is around. These sensors operate at frequencies such as 32 kilohertz, far above what the human ear can hear – which is a range from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz. Other products use ultrasound to deliver targeted sound, for instance allowing a museum to play a recording for visitors in one area of an exhibit without disturbing others nearby. Electronic pest repellents use ultrasound to keep rodents or insects at bay. A similar product can even be used to disperse teenagers; aging tends to reduce people’s ability to hear higher frequency sounds, so a noisemaker can annoy young people without adults even noticing. (This has also let teens create smartphone ringtones their elders can’t hear.)

2. What can go wrong with ultrasound?

Airborne ultrasound is not inherently bad. But things can go wrong. A former colleague of Kevin’s used to hear strange sounds from his hearing aid when in rooms with occupancy sensors, likely because the hearing aid’s electronics improperly converted the ultrasound into audible noises. These noises were annoying, but not harmful. A similar problem tainted one of our students’ research, conducted in a room that, unbeknownst to him, had an ultrasonic room occupancy sensor in the ceiling.

Michigan Ph.D. student Connor Bolton frustratingly discovers that ultrasonic noise from a ceiling-mounted room occupancy sensor had interfered with a year’s worth of sonic experiments. Connor Bolton, CC BY-ND

Both ultrasound and human-audible sound can also affect electronics. For instance, one of us has conducted research in which carefully crafted ultrasonic signals secretly activate voice-control systems, even unlocking an iPhone with a silent “Hey Siri” command, and telling it to make a FaceTime call. Sound can also affect the physical world, as when a singer shatters a wine glass. Microelectrical mechanical sensing chips – such as accelerometers used in car airbag systems and smartphones, and gyroscopes in drones – are susceptible to the same interference. Those systems can be attacked with sound, crashing a drone mid-flight, or fooling a smartphone about whether it’s moving.

Making audible sounds from inaudible ultrasounds.

3. Should people worry about ultrasound causing bodily harm?

It’s well-known that sounds that are too loud can damage people’s ears and hearing. However, there’s little evidence of ultrasound causing bodily harm without prolonged, direct physical contact at high intensity. If you are accidentally subjected to extremely intense ultrasound (such as when holding an ultrasonic arc welder), you could experience an annoyance like a headache or temporary loss of balance. Academics disagree about safe levels of airborne ultrasound. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns of potential health risks from audible subharmonic byproducts of ultrasound, more so than the ultrasound itself. Many animals can hear higher frequencies than humans. Dogs can hear higher-pitched whistles, for instance. One of our students noticed that his pet turtles would begin to dance rhythmically when he performed ultrasound experiments!

4. What might have happened in Cuba?

In early 2017, U.S. diplomats in Cuba reported hearing strange metallic sounds, and suffering hearing loss and other neurological harm. Later reports of similar effects came from Canadian diplomats and tourists from both Canada and the U.S. Possible explanations have varied: Some have alleged Cuba used an unknown sonic weapon, while others have blamed “mass hysteria.”

Our research offers a new explanation not previously considered by others: The true cause could have been equipment trying to listen in on the diplomats’ and visitors’ conversations. We were able to use ultrasonic tones to create sounds like those that were described and recorded in Cuba. No single ultrasonic tone would do this, but as with musical combination tones, combining more than one can create audible byproduct sounds, including by accident.

A recording of the sound some U.S. Embassy workers heard in Havana.

 

Further, we created a proof-of-concept eavesdropping device that would record audible conversations and transmit the recordings to a nearby surveillance team over an inaudible ultrasonic link. When we placed a second inaudible ultrasonic device in the area, we were able to create interference – technically called “intermodulation distortion” – between the two signals that made similar sounds to those recorded in Cuba. We were even able to control the volume of the audible sounds by varying the strength of the ultrasonic signals. The ConversationWithout additional evidence, our research does not identify what actually happened in Cuba, but it provides a plausible explanation for what might have happened, even if the eavesdroppers were not trying to harm people.

Kevin Fu, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Michigan and Wenyuan Xu, Professor of Electrical Engineering, Zhejiang University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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US Embassy Cuba: New Mechanism For Brain Injury From an “Exposure of Unknown Origin”

Posted: 12:39 am ET

 

The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair was selected to coordinate the evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation of 21 government personnel (11 women and 10 men) identified by the State Department and evaluated an average of 203 days following exposure to reported sound (described as “buzzing,” “grinding  metal,” “piercing squeals” or “humming”) and sensory phenomena (described as pressure-like or vibrating and likened to air “baffling” inside a moving car with the windows partially rolled down) at the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba in late 2016.

“It’s like a concussion without a concussion.”

“Of the 21 individuals assessed at Penn, 17 reported cognitive or behavioral problems such as difficulty remembering, concentrating, or both. “It’s not that any patient can’t do a given task, but it requires way more effort,” said coauthor Randel Swanson, DO, PhD, a brain injury rehabilitation specialist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair. “They don’t have as much cognitive reserve.”

The author and his coauthors signed a nondisclosure agreement with the State Department, “so they cannot discuss whether they know more about what happened in Havana than has already been made public.”

The study concludes that “The unique circumstances of these patients and the clinical manifestations detailed in this report raise concern about a new mechanism for possible acquired brain injury from an exposure of unknown origin.”

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U.S. Embassy Havana: Doctors Identify Brain Abnormalities in Cuba Attack Patients

Posted: 1:10 am ET

 

AND NOW THIS —

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@StateDept Expels 15 Cuban Officials Over Failure to Protect U.S. Diplomats

Posted: 11:40 am PT
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US Embassy #Cuba Now on Ordered Departure Over “Attacks of an Unknown Nature”

Posted: 2:26 pm PT
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On September 29, 2017, the State Department placed the U.S. Embassy in Havana on “ordered departure” status, making the departure of non-emergency personnel and family members from Cuba mandatory. This follows the earlier declaration for an “authorized departure” over Hurricane Irma, and after months of these reported “sonic” attacks. The State Department has also issued a new Travel Warning advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba: “Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”

Related posts:

 

 

 

16 USG Employees in “Sonic Attack” and More on The Secret History of Diplomats and Invisible Weapons

Posted: 3:33 am  ET
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On August 24, during the Daily Press Briefing, the State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert confirmed that 16 USG employees were affected by the “sonic attack.”

We only now have the confirmation of the number of Americans who have been affected by this. We can confirm that at least 16 U.S. Government employees, members of our embassy community, have experienced some kind of symptoms. They have been provided medical treatment in the United States as well as in Cuba. We take this situation extremely seriously. We are trying to provide them the help, the medical care, the treatment, and the support that they need and the support that they deserve.

It is not clear at this time if this number includes family members. We are aware of at least one spouse who was reportedly affected by this attack, was medevaced with the employee-spouse, and both were reassigned elsewhere.

The spox also said that “The incidents are no longer occurring.”  A reporter asked “so if we haven’t found a device and we don’t know who did it, and we’re talking about symptoms that are not, like, “Ow,” no longer ow; we’re talking about things that have – that developed over time, how do we – how do we know that this isn’t ongoing?”

The spox gave a very unsatisfying answer as follows: “How do we know that it’s not – because we talk with our staff and we talk with the medical professionals.”

Below is a piece by Sharon Weinberger from her book, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World via FP:

In 1965, medical workers began showing up at the American embassy in Moscow, drawing blood from the employees inside. The American diplomats were told that doctors were looking for possible exposure to a new type of virus, something not unexpected in a country known for its frigid winters.

It was all a lie. The Moscow Viral Study, as it was called, was the cover story for the American government’s top secret investigation into the effects of microwave radiation on humans.
[…]
A State Department doctor in charge of the blood tests, Cecil Jacobson, asserted that there had been some chromosomal changes, but none of the scientific reviews of his work seemed to back his view. Jacobson achieved infamy in later years, not for the Moscow Signal, but for fraud related to his fertility work. Among other misdeeds, he was sent to prison for impregnating possibly dozens of unsuspecting patients with his own sperm, rather than that of screened anonymous donors as they were expecting.

Richard Cesaro never attained that level of personal notoriety, but he asserted, even after he retired, that the Moscow Signal remained an open question. “I look at it as still a major, serious, unsettled threat to the security of the United States,” he said, when interviewed about it nearly two decades later. “If you really make the breakthrough, you’ve got something better than any bomb ever built, because when you finally come down the line you’re talking about controlling people’s minds.”

Perhaps, but Pandora resonated for years as the secrecy surrounding the project generated public paranoia and distrust of government research on radiation safety. Project Pandora was often cited as proof that the government knew more about the health effects of electro- magnetic radiation than it was letting on. The government did finally inform embassy personnel in the 1970s about the microwave radiation, prompting, not surprisingly, a slew of lawsuits.

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U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Sonic Attacks: As Serious as Mild TBI/Central Nervous System Damage?

Posted: 2:49 am ET
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CBS News updated its reporting on the “sonic attacks” on U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana, Cuba. CBS News said that a U.S. doctor who evaluated American and Canadian diplomats working in Havana diagnosed them with conditions as serious as mild traumatic brain injury, and with likely damage to the central nervous system.  “The diplomats complained about symptoms ranging from hearing loss and nausea to headaches and balance disorders after the State Department said “incidents” began affecting them beginning in late 2016. A source familiar with these incidents says officials are investigating whether the diplomats were targets of a type of sonic attack directed at their homes, which were provided by the Cuban government. The source says reports of more attacks affecting U.S. embassy workers on the island continue.”  The report says that the University of Miami Health System confirmed that their physicians were “consulted” by State on its diplomats in Cuba.

Question about these affected diplomats were asked during the State Department’s Daily Press Briefing on August 23, but there were no good answers as to how many embassy employees were affected.  If the attacks were directed at their homes, how many family members were similarly affected? Are these attacks continuing to this day? What happens if these attacks result in permanent disability like hearing loss for family members who are not employed?  Most notably, when the health of employees and family members are damaged by these attacks, are they extended medical expense assistance even when they are not hospitalized?

Per 16 FAM 520, the individual employee is responsible for all medical expenses related to outpatient care, except when associated with a hospitalization as defined by the insurance company’s Explanation of Benefits (EOB), i.e., the insurance company makes the determination.  Also note the following:

  • U.S. Government agencies that participate in the Department of State Medical and Health Program serve as secondary payers (with the exception of deductibles and other limitations as noted in 16 FAM 531) for inpatient hospital and related outpatient medical expenses of employees and eligible family members who are covered by medical insurance where certain conditions are met.
  • An individual without medical insurance or whose insurer refuses to act as a primary payer is responsible for all medical expenses.
  • The same regs say that “in the event of a medical emergency, the Office of Medical Services or a Foreign Service medical provider may authorize issuance of Form DS-3067, Authorization for Medical Services for Employees and/or Dependents, to secure admission to a hospital located abroad or in the United States while on medical travel provided the employee signs a repayment agreement.   Reimbursement may be made directly or through payroll deductions from the employee’s salary.”

Via DPB | August 23, 2016:

QUESTION: Listen, how concerned is the State Department about these diplomats, who medical records show have brain damage? Are there any that are still in Cuba that have been affected by this who have asked the State Department to leave?

MS NAUERT: So some have – some we have – some we asked to leave because their condition necessitated that, and they left – wanted to – mutually agreed upon – left that country because of the situation, because of the symptoms that they were experiencing. There were others that have chosen to stay there and some of them are still there. Does that answer your question?

QUESTION: It does, but I want to ask you: Does the U.S. embassy have a current medical officer permanently based in Havana to address these incidents?

MS NAUERT: I know that we have had our U.S. Government employees go to Miami, Florida where they had – some of them had been medically evacuated in order to receive medical treatment and testing. I know —

QUESTION: But is there a medical officer at the embassy?

MS NAUERT: May I – look, could I – could I finish what I’m saying? I also know that we have brought medical professionals to our staff in Cuba to be able to treat them, to be able to test them. The best equipment is not going to necessarily be on the ground in Cuba. We are bringing people to the best medical experts on the mainland in the United States. Is there an actual medical officer? I don’t know the answer to that. I can look into that and see if I can get you an answer. Okay?
[…]
QUESTION: Well, there were some reports as well that this started in December of 2016. Two questions actually: Can you confirm whether or not these attacks are continuing to this day? And can you confirm whether or not there were any actions that were being – that the U.S. Government took – let me rephrase – did the U.S. Government not respond until February of this year?

MS NAUERT: The first reported activity took place in late December of 2016. That is correct. I’ve confirmed that here before. When these things started to come in – and I’ve talked about this before – people reported a variety of symptoms. Not everyone has experienced the same type of – the same type of symptoms. So after the initial reports came in, then we started to get some other reports. And it took some time for people to be able to determine that yes, there is a pattern taking place here; yes, there is something going on. It’s much like – I would liken it to if you have an illness and you kind of maybe – you mention it to a colleague, you mention it to a doctor, but you don’t think anything of it. The doctor hears about somebody else who has maybe a different kind of symptom. It may not all be put together at the same time and say, “Aha. This must be it.” It takes some time for that information to come in.  But since that information started coming in, we take this very seriously – safety and security of Americans, which obviously includes U.S. Government officials and employees who are there on business. It is a huge priority for us and we’re trying to get them all the care that they need. Okay?

 

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