Healthcare Technology Featured Article

August 04, 2011

Hackers Now Going After Info Carried on Medical Devices


They’ve hacked into the government. The friendly skies. Your credit card company. And now they could be hacking into the human bloodstream.

Literally.

Actually, it hasn’t happened yet but a security researcher who has diabetes has found a way hackers could make him really sick, or even kill him, by remotely controlling his insulin pump and altering the read-outs of blood sugar monitors, all because of some flaws he’s been able to identify in the software, according to a story at news.yahoo.com.

Diabetics who get too much or too little insulin, a hormone they need for proper metabolism, can become hypoglycemic (when your insulin level is too low), giving you cold sweats, shaking, trouble sleeping or even convulsions, according to medlineplus.com, or hyperglycemic, when your blood sugar level is too high, according to answers.com. Hyperglycemia can make you extremely thirsty or dehydrated, tired or drowsy, give you stomach cramps and rapid and deep breathing. In severe cases with either, you can go into a coma.

Jay Radcliffe is the diabetic who experimented on his own equipment, and shared his findings with The Associated Press (AP) before releasing them Thursday at the Black Hat computer security conference in Las Vegas, according to the story at news.yahoo.com.

“My initial reaction was that this was really cool from a technical perspective,” Radcliffe told the AP. “The second reaction was one of maybe sheer terror, to know that there’s no security around the devices which are a very active part of keeping me alive.”

Thanks to the explosion of health information technology, medical devices such as “pacemakers, operating room monitors and surgical instruments including deep-brain stimulators” can now completely inadvertently transmit vital health information from a patient’s body not only to doctors and other professionals, but to those who may have harm in mind. Adding to this possibility, some devices can be remotely controlled by medical professionals.

Reassuringly, the story reports there’s no evidence that anyone has used Radcliffe’s techniques to undermine diabetic monitoring equipment. But his findings raise concerns that medical devices could play into the wrong hands as they’re brought into the Internet age. News.yahoo.com points out that “serious attacks have already been demonstrated against pacemakers and defibrillators.”

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Deborah DiSesa Hirsch is an award-winning health and technology writer who has worked for newspapers, magazines and IBM in her 20-year career. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell





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