Hacking Medical Devices
Okay, so this could be big news:
But a team of computer security researchers plans to report Wednesday that it had been able to gain wireless access to a combination heart defibrillator and pacemaker.
They were able to reprogram it to shut down and to deliver jolts of electricity that would potentially be fatal—if the device had been in a person. In this case, the researcher were hacking into a device in a laboratory.
The researchers said they had also been able to glean personal patient data by eavesdropping on signals from the tiny wireless radio that Medtronic, the device’s maker, had embedded in the implant as a way to let doctors monitor and adjust it without surgery.
There’s only a little bit of hyperbole in the New York Times article. The research is being conducted by the Medical Device Security Center, with researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of Washington. They have two published papers:
- “Security and Privacy of Implantable Medical Devices,” Daniel Halperin, Thomas S. Heydt-Benjamin, Kevin Fu, Tadayoshi Kohno, and William H. Maisel, IEEE Pervasive Computing, January 2008.
- “Pacemakers and Implantable Cardiac Defibrillators: Software Radio Attacks and Zero-Power Defenses,” Daniel Halperin, Thomas S. Heydt-Benjamin, Benjamin Ransford, Shane S. Clark, Benessa Defend, Will Morgan, Kevin Fu, Tadayoshi Kohno, and William H. Maisel, IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, May 2008.
This is from the FAQ for the second paper (an ICD is a implantable cardiac defibrillator):
As part of our research we evaluated the security and privacy properties of a common ICD. We investigate whether a malicious party could create his or her own equipment capable of wirelessly communicating with this ICD.
Using our own equipment (an antenna, radio hardware, and a PC), we found that someone could violate the privacy of patient information and medical telemetry. The ICD wirelessly transmits patient information and telemetry without observable encryption. The adversary’s computer could intercept wireless signals from the ICD and learn information including: the patient’s name, the patient’s medical history, the patient’s date of birth, and so on.
Using our own equipment (an antenna, radio hardware, and a PC), we found that someone could also turn off or modify therapy settings stored on the ICD. Such a person could render the ICD incapable of responding to dangerous cardiac events. A malicious person could also make the ICD deliver a shock that could induce ventricular fibrillation, a potentially lethal arrhythmia.
Of course, we all know how this happened. It’s a story we’ve seen a zillion times before: the designers didn’t think about security, so the design wasn’t secure.
The researchers are making it very clear that this doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get pacemakers and ICDs. Again, from the FAQ:
We strongly believe that nothing in our report should deter patients from receiving these devices if recommended by their physician. The implantable cardiac defibrillator is a proven, life-saving technology. We believe that the risk to patients is low and that patients should not be alarmed. We do not know of a single case where an IMD patient has ever been harmed by a malicious security attack. To carry out the attacks we discuss in our paper would require: malicious intent, technical sophistication, and the ability to place electronic equipment close to the patient. Our goal in performing this study is to improve the security, privacy, safety, and effectiveness of future IMDs.
For all our experiments our antenna, radio hardware, and PC were near the ICD. Our experiments were conducted in a computer laboratory and utilized simulated patient data. We did not experiment with extending the distance between the antenna and the ICD.
I agree with this answer. The risks are there, but the benefits of these devices are much greater. The point of this research isn’t to help people hack into pacemakers and commit murder, but to enable medical device companies to design better implantable equipment in the future. I think it’s great work.
Of course, that will only happen if the medical device companies don’t react like idiots:
Medtronic, the industry leader in cardiac regulating implants, said Tuesday that it welcomed the chance to look at security issues with doctors, regulators and researchers, adding that it had never encountered illegal or unauthorized hacking of its devices that have telemetry, or wireless control, capabilities.
“To our knowledge there has not been a single reported incident of such an event in more than 30 years of device telemetry use, which includes millions of implants worldwide,” a Medtronic spokesman, Robert Clark, said. Mr. Clark added that newer implants with longer transmission ranges than Maximo also had enhanced security.
St. Jude Medical, the third major defibrillator company, said it used “proprietary techniques” to protect the security of its implants and had not heard of any unauthorized or illegal manipulation of them.
Just because you have no knowledge of something happening does not mean it’s not a risk.
The general moral here: more and more, computer technology is becoming intimately embedded into our lives. And with each new application comes new security risks. And we have to take those risks seriously.
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