Possible Solution to Mystery of “Sonic Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

A team of computer scientists from the University of Michigan’s Security and Privacy Research Group may have found the solution to the mystery of so-called “sonic attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Cuba. [1] The leaders of.the team were electrical engineering and computer science professors Kevin Fu of the University of Michigan and  Wenyuan Xu from Zhejiang University. [2]

New Theory for “Sonic Attacks” [3]

In an article they simplified their project by answering the following four questions:

  1. What is ultrasound useful for? Ultrasound – high-frequency sound waves human ears can’t hear—are useful, for example, in medical devices to examine fetuses during pregnancy or in occupancy sensors to detect movement.
  2. What can go wrong with ultrasound? Examples: electronic hearing aids converting ultrasonic occupancy sensors into audible sounds and ultrasonic signals secretly activating voice-control systems.
  3. Should people worry about ultrasound causing bodily harm? There’s little evidence of ultrasound causing bodily harm without prolonged, direct physical contact at high intensity. 
  4. What might have happened inCuba? The true cause could have been equipment trying to listen in on the diplomats’ and visitors’ conversations. No single ultrasonic tone would do this, but combining more than one can create audible byproduct sounds, including by accident. To test this theory they created an 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.”

The Introduction of their 80-page research report elaborates on the above answer to the first question by stating, “There are many potential sources of ultrasound in office, home, and hotel environments. Energy efficient buildings often use ultrasonic room occupancy sensors in every room (Figure 1). Ultrasonic emitters can repel rodents and other pests. HVAC systems and other utilities with pumps or compressors can vibrate entire buildings. Certain burglar alarm sensors, security cameras, and automated doors use ultrasound for detection of movement.” (Emphasis added.) [4]

There 80-page research paper’s Conclusion states,“Our conclusion is that if ultrasound played a role in harming diplomats in Cuba, then a plausible cause is intermodulation distortion between ultrasonic signals that unintentionally synthesize audible tones. In other words, acoustic interference without malicious intent to cause harm could have led to the audible sensations in Cuba.” The conclusion of the research paper itself also states, “our experiments do not eliminate the possibility of malicious intent to harm diplomats.” (Emphasis in original.)

“This is a variation of what I have always thought,” James Cason, a former top U.S. diplomat in Havana, told el Nuevo Herald. “It explains the sonic part, that no one was spotted planting new devices inside the homes and doing it from the outside would require something huge.”

Conclusion

As a non-electrical engineer who has been carefully following the news about the medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats Cuba, this research paper offers a new possible explanation of what happened in what many accounts call “acoustic attacks” in Cuba. This theory deserves further investigation.

If I correctly understand this theory, the audible sound similar to that heard in Cuba requires at least two ultrasound sources that interfere with each other and this suggests that the audible sound was accidental and not intended. This supports Cuba’s consistent assertion that it did not intend to do anything to harm the American diplomats, an assertion that makes obvious sense from Cuba’s own self-interest of avoiding antagonizing the U.S.

One of the ultrasound sources in their research was one “that would record audible conversations and transmit the recordings to a nearby surveillance team over an inaudible ultrasonic link.” Why was this device chosen? Was it the only device that would produce the comparable interference when combined with another ultrasonic source? Or are there other possible ultrasound devices? In any event, what country or company was the source of this ultrasound in Cuba? Cuba? A secret U.S. agency? A third country?

If one of the ultrasound devices in Cuba was one for eavesdropping and if Cuba was the user of such device, the U.S. would still have a legitimate complaint against Cuba. But a wide reading of materials about the U.S. and Cuba suggests that the U.S. always has assumed that Cuba was and is always attempting to spy on U.S. diplomats on the island.

I hope this theory is confirmed by others as it should eliminate the supposed reason for the U.S.’ reducing the staffing of its Havana Embassy, issuing the travel advisory that U.S. citizens should reconsider any plans to travel to Cuba and expelling Cuban diplomats from Washington, D.C.

Other comments from readers are especially welcome on these and related issues.

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[1] See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016-2018” section in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA

[2] Professor Fu at an apparent young age already has an impressive resume and in October 2017 received a University of Michigan Regent’s Award for Distinguished Public Service. (Craig, Kevin Fu recognized with Regents’ Award for Distinguished Public Service, Univ. Michigan CSE News (Oct. 9, 2017).

[3] Fu & Xu,, Can sound be used was a weapon? 4 questions answered, The Conversation (Mar. 1, 2018); Yan, Fu & Xu, On Cuba, Diplomats, Ultrasound, and Intermodulation Distortion (Mar. 1, 2018) (80-page report); Moore, Cuba “sonic attacks”; a covert accident? Univ. Michigan CSE News (Mar. 2, 2018); Torres, Computer scientists may have solved the mystery behind the ‘sonic attacks’ in Cuba, Miami Herald  (Mar. 2, 2018). 

[4] A prior post reported about American teens hearing high-pitched sounds at the Havana Airport that apparently came from a “Zonic” device, whose Spanish manufacturer described it as “an “ultrasound animal repeller” that “makes the stay of birds, reptiles, and rodents uncomfortable” by emitting “vibrations of high frequency (ultrasounds), alternating between ranges for different animals, so that they will never nest.” 

Published by

dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

4 thoughts on “Possible Solution to Mystery of “Sonic Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba”

  1. Approval of University of Michigan Research on Alleged “Sonic Weapon” in Cuba

    Fadel Adib, professor of wireless technology for sensors and communications at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls the study by Fu and his colleagues “a creative take on what might have happened.”

    Adib, who wasn’t involved in the research but reviewed the results, added that “wireless signals can and do interact with one another.” And if that happens, “you’ll hear signals you wouldn’t expect to hear. Given all the possible explanations, this definitely seems the most plausible and the most technically feasible.”

    =========================

    Kumagai, Finally, a Likely Explanation for the “Sonic Weapon” Used at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, IEEE Spectrum (Mar. 1, 2018), https://spectrum.ieee.org/semiconductors/devices/finally-a-likely-explanation-for-the-sonic-weapon-used-at-the-us-embassy-in-cuba

    Academics explain what diplomats attacked in Havana heard, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 3, 2018) http://www.diariodecuba.com/cuba/1520088645_37741.html

  2. U.S. Still Does Not Know Cause of “Sonic Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

    At the March 29 Press Briefing U.S. State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said “the [U.S.] investigation [of the so-called “sonic attacks”] is still ongoing. The State Department is involved in that, as are other government agencies and departments as well. It is still an ongoing investigation. The [U.S.] Government is still not sure who or what is responsible for those health attacks on 24 of our embassy personnel who were based down at our embassy in Cuba. The investigation continues. It’s not something that we’re giving up on.”

    She added, “When we don’t know what or who is responsible for it, it is difficult to do anything to take action to prevent . . . an attack from something you don’t know where it is coming from. So that’s virtually impossible to do . . .”

    Finally, “The decision was made late last year to bring home some of our people. We are operating at a reduced staffing rate. We still are. It is considered an unaccompanied post. That means that we don’t allow spouses down there, children down there. The reason being for these personnel changes which went into effect last year is that we can’t necessarily ensure people’s safety when we don’t know what is responsible for attacking our people”
    =============================
    U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing – March 29, 2018, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2018/03/279656.htm#CUBA

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