On the most recent episode of the Emmy award-winning drama Homeland, the Vice President of the United States was assassinated by a group of terrorists that hacked into the pacemaker controlling the beat of his heart. The terrorists were able to get their hands on the device’s serial number and then remotely take control of the device, causing it to malfunction and lead to a fatal heart attack.
The plot twist was surprising and left many wondering whether it could ever happen in real life. Shockingly this was not just a Hollywood fabrication but is actually possible due to the serious vulnerabilities of electronic medical implants.
Though such connected medical implants are life saving additions to many people’s lives, there are real risks associated with them. While everyone knows about the dangers that hackers can cause online, almost no one understands the threats that exist when computers are placed inside people.
Though implanted medical devices have been in existence for many years, only in the past decade have they begun to incorporate components that allow for virtual access. This system can be used by doctors to gather important information but comes with very little in the way of security. Lack of battery power means that elaborate security measures are not possible and doing a full “update” requires surgery, not just a click of a button.
Thankfully there have not yet been any reports of death caused by someone hacking into a medical device. However, test hacks have been done and have shown that it is certainly possible. The equipment needed to hack such devices used to cost tens of thousands of dollars; last year one researcher hacked into his insulin pump using materials that cost less than $20. Another security expert demonstrated how with the push of a button he could run a program on his laptop that made any insulin pumps within 300 feet dump their entire contents into a patient’s bloodstream.
Government regulators are aware of these technological problems and have recommended that the FDA seriously consider these concerns when approving new medical devices. Though that might help in the short term, in the long run a new, aggressive system for staying one step ahead of potential cyber criminals is critical to ensure patient safety.
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