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Invasion of the Body Hackers? Wireless Medical Devices Susceptible to Attacks

By Richard Adhikari
Aug 5, 2011 11:40 AM PT

Security expert and diabetic Jerome Radcliffe has hacked into the wireless insulin pump he wears on his body around the clock to keep his blood sugar level stable.

Invasion of the Body Hackers? Wireless Medical Devices Susceptible to Attacks

Radcliffe talked about the hack in a presentation at the Black Hat Security Conference, held in Las Vegas.

He reportedly detailed how untraceable attacks could be launched against wireless insulin pumps, pacemakers and implanted defibrillators from a distance of half a mile.

The use of wireless technology is improving healthcare, according to a post by the GLG Group that cited a study by Philips.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) said there are more than 40 million Bluetooth-enabled health and medical devices already in the market.

In June, the Bluetooth SIG finalized standards for Bluetooth-capable thermometers and heart rate management products.

It's possible to hack any wireless medical device that's not configured properly, Tim Gee, principal at Medical Connectivity, told TechNewsWorld.

However, doing so is not a simple task.

"Of course, someone with good generalist programming skills can learn to work with kits like this, but they'd need to know a lot more than a control language," David Harley, senior research fellow at ESET, told TechNewsWorld.

"I'm sure this won't come as a complete surprise to the industry, but it's a largely hypothetical situation that largely belongs in the pages of a thriller," Harley added.

About Jay Radcliffe

Radcliffe, who works at SecureConcern, is a Type 1 diabetic. This is a chronic disease previously known as "juvenile diabetes" that is caused by the pancreas not producing enough insulin to control the patient's blood sugar level.

Radcliffe reportedly spent two years trying to hack his pump because he was concerned about the possibility that someone might be able to hack into pumps like his and reconfigure their settings.

He eventually managed to take control of the pump so that he could change the amount of insulin it injected into his body without leaving a trace of what he'd done.

Radcliffe did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Wireless Technology for Medical Devices

Wireless medical devices use either the MICS band or the ISM band, Medical Connectivity's Gee said.

MICS stands for Medical Implant Communication Service. It uses the 402-405 MHz frequency and is a short-range wireless link used to connect low-power medical devices implanted in patients to monitoring and control equipment.

Such equipment would include pacemakers, defibrillators and neurostimulators.

The ISM, or industrial, scientific and medical band, is reserved for uses other than communications. Such uses include radio frequency process heating, microwave ovens and medical diathermy machines.

Several frequencies ranging from 6.780 MHz to 244-246 GHz are defined as ISM bands by the International Telecommunications Union's Radiocommunication Sector.

The Possible Technology of the Hack

Radcliffe isn't the first to hack a vital piece of medical equipment. Three years ago, a group of academics published a paper about a similar vulnerability in wireless pacemakers.

"It seems to me that the hacking takes place at the transmission link level, in this case, either a WWAN connection, meaning a mobile network, or a WiFi LAN," Harry Wang, director, mobile and health research at Parks Associates, told TechNewsWorld.

It's easier to hack into a network-connected device.

The majority of medical devices aren't connected to networks now, which accords some measure of safety, but that's beginning to change, Wang said.

Death and Device Hacks

However, the chances of a hacker taking over someone's implanted medical device to commit harm or even murder are small.

"The device base is small, and consequences will be much harsher for hackers if they do this," Parks Associates' Wang stated.

"[Radcliffe's hack] will raise the visibility of the issue and may prompt industry and government to act more swiftly," Wang added.

Don't expect a solution soon, because agreeing on one "will involve several parties and the process will be long, particularly if you involve national policy on spectrum allocation," Wang said.

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