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Medical devices could fall prey to computer malfunctions, hackers

  • Medill News Service
  • Published Monday, May 12, 2014, at 12:39 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, May 12, 2014, at 3:03 p.m.

— Chris Carroll won’t forget the first time he saw someone hack into an insulin pump and make it deliver a lethal dose.

Although the pump wasn’t connected to anyone, Carroll, a 34-year-old from Austin, Texas, got the point: The danger was real.

It hit home, too. Carroll has Type 1 diabetes and wears a pump that delivers insulin directly into his body.

As more and more medical devices and hospital equipment become connected to the Internet or networks, they may become lucrative targets for cyber-criminals or hackers trying either to harm the users or make points about their own technological skills.

“The health care industry is not technically prepared to combat against cyber-criminals’ basic cyber intrusion tactics,” an April report from the cyber division of the FBI says. It also says the industry “is not as resilient to cyber intrusions compared to the financial and retail sectors, therefore the possibility of increased cyber intrusions is likely.”

Experts also are worried about the potentially deadly consequences of unsecured systems being violated accidentally. As people become more dependent on medical devices that share information, the chance increases that their codes could be scrambled, causing malfunctions.

“I think the thing we really have to worry about the most,” said Frank Painter, a health care technology consultant for Technology Management Solutions, a computer consulting company, “is an unsecure system being able to be violated by accident.”

The technology magazine Wired reported in April that an information security official from Essentia Health found that cyber intruders can manipulate drug infusion pumps _ which deliver antibiotics and chemotherapy directly into patients _ defibrillators, X-rays and even temperature settings on medical refrigerators that store drugs and blood.

The security official, Scott Erven, had access to a chain of health care facilities in the Midwest over two years for the study, Wired reported. Erven couldn’t be reached for comment for this article.

Moreover, as hospitals move patient records to network databases, the financial incentive for hackers is huge. The FBI report notes that even partial electronic health records are selling for $50 each on the black market, compared with $1 for Social Security cards and credit card numbers.

Electronic health records contain comprehensive patient information and allow all the patient’s health care providers to share that information. These records are attractive targets to hackers because they can be used to sell drug prescriptions.

Michael Carome, the director of health research at Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group in Washington, said that although the risk of private medical-information leaks was hard to quantify, “It is a concern and it should be on the radar screen of public health officials and those who are responsible for security.”

Particularly with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which encourages physicians to adopt electronic health record-keeping for their patients, greater security provisions are needed, Carome said.

The FBI report cites research from the SANS Institute, a private company that specializes in Internet security training. SANS concluded that some systems and devices were compromised for extended periods, and that companies, when notified of the vulnerabilities, did not repair them.

“The time to act is yesterday,” the report says.

Carroll is familiar with manufacturers’ indifference to security concerns. After he saw the insulin pump hacking demonstration, he contacted his own pump provider.

“Both of the people I talked to had no idea this was possible, and had no answer regarding plans to fix the issue,” he said. “They tried the whole, ‘Well, even if it’s possible, no one would do it.’ ”

So far Carroll’s pump manufacturer has been right. The Food and Drug Administration’s website says the agency isn’t aware of any patient injuries or deaths related to hacking intrusions.

Still, at least some users think the risks are real. As early as 2007, then-Vice President Dick Cheney had the wireless function on his heart defibrillator disabled, fearing it made him more vulnerable to a terrorist attack. But most people don’t face the same level of personal risk.

“I hold no delusions of grandeur that I’m important enough for people to go after, but I do know that some people try these types of things just for the hell of it,” Carroll said.

Typically, problems with medical devices are identified by or reported to the FDA. But the exponential rate of device innovation calls into question the FDA’s capacity to monitor medical devices.

“There are so many different kinds of inventions and devices doing so many different things, the FDA really can’t legislate down to the line and code of security for every situation,” said Painter, the health care technology consultant.

Painter also said the FDA’s general standards were sufficient and that the responsibility for ensuring device security lay with the manufacturers: “Good designers can build good, safe, secure designs in the first place, pretty simply. So if they did that, it would preclude somebody from doing something bad.”

In an email, the FDA referred to an online statement noting that it allows devices to be marketed “when the probable benefits to patients outweigh the probable risks.”

Like Painter, the FDA maintains that ultimately “manufacturers are responsible for remaining vigilant about identifying risks and hazards associated with their medical devices, including risks related to cybersecurity, and are responsible for putting appropriate mitigations in place to address patient safety.”

The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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