The Heartbeat of Wireless Medical Security

By Matthew Hines  |  Posted 2008-08-06 Print this article Print

Here's a cool one: a pair of researchers held a presentation on the security implications of implantable medical devices that feature wireless connectivity today at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas.

It's an angle on wireless security that most people probably haven't even considered, were it that they are even aware that many medical devices including pacemakers and defibrillators are being loaded with onboard radios.

The idea behind the inclusion of the connectivity in these implantables is a terrific one, as the wireless access allows doctors to download information on the performance of the life-saving machines and those people who bear them -- to see how both their patients and the internal medical gear are functioning.

VP Dick Cheney famously wears one of these wireless-enabled pacemaker/defibrillator gizmos, the same model as one of my uncles I'm told. And yes, there's even a Bluetooth-enabled leg on the market, the researchers, Tadayoshi Kohno and Kevin Fu, pointed out.

Other medical devices that are being designed with onboard wireless include insulin pumps, artificial organs, neurotransmitters, artificial vision machines, obesity control tools and, of course, programmable vasectomies.

And, as with any other wireless technologies, it's important to consider the potential for abuse of the technology in the implanted medical arena, and thus, the experts felt the need to dig deeper.

"Whenever you start to add these features, security and privacy become much more critical," said Fu.

While the risk for wireless attacks carried out against patients wearing such devices today remains low, in part because most of the radios involved only transmit over very short distances, the ability to interfere with their performance already exists today, the researchers said.

And more importantly, the experts want to call attention to the issue as more such medical implants appear in the future, and the machines become more widely adopted. Newer devices are already being armed with more powerful radios, for instance.

"Currently we believe that the risks to patients are fairly low, but we think that the problems could become more significant in the future, so it's important to address them," said Kohno.

One of the problems in most of today's wireless-enabled implantables is that they lack sufficient battery power to support onboard encryption for their signals.

Among the methods currently available for people seeking to hack the internal devices would be for them to steal one of the programming appliances designed to adjust the gadgets, then reverse engineer the systems and get root control of the machines, the researchers said.

Another simple method for messing with the devices could be to use a simple replay attack to figure out the wireless frequencies and signals they utilize to create additional commands for them.

Once in control, someone could conceivably attack the people bearing them, such as by programming a defibrillator to deliver an overly powerful and untimely shock to the individual's heart.

A far less ominous likelihood might involve attempts to eavesdrop on the devices to gain information about the people who carry them.

And then there's the notion of "body-hacking" through which patients themselves might alter their implantables to increase the flow of drugs, or somehow change the performance of their bodies.

"Bodyhackers" sounds like a bad sci-fi movie of the future to me.

The researchers have already spoken to the FDA about the issue of improving wireless medical device security, and the regulators are beginning to consider the problem.

In addition to adding encryption for their signals, the machines could also be designed with authentication systems to help improve their security, the experts said.

"This is an interesting challenge that we as an industry, along with medical industry and government need to consider going forward," said Kohno. "We want the medical industry and security community to rally around the issue to protect new devices in the future; we need to be very proactive about improving the security and privacy."

Pretty wild.

Matt Hines has been following the IT industry for over a decade as a reporter and blogger, and has been specifically focused on the security space since 2003, including a previous stint writing for eWeek and contributing to the Security Watch blog. Hines is currently employed as marketing communications manager at Core Security Technologies, a Boston-based maker of security testing software. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Core Security, and neither the company, nor its products and services will be actively discussed in the blog. Please send news, research or tips to |

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