Scientists move to protect medical devices from hack attack

It’s bad news for young gold digger wives looking to kill off their Hugh Hefner aged husbands with boffins coming up with a system to jam lethal wireless signals sent to medical implants by unauthorised users.

According to researchers at MIT and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass) millions of Americans have implantable medical devices, which range from pacemakers and defibrillators to brain stimulators and drug pumps.

Globally 300,000 use these devices, which have wireless connections, so that doctors can monitor patients’ vital signs or revise treatment programs.

However, like any wireless connection, there’s now a risk that such devices could be vulnerable to attack. And unlike with PCs when a wireless hack means someone obtaining your personal details, the worse case scenario here is that an attacker – or money grabbing relative – could kill a victim by instructing an implantable device to deliver lethal doses of medication or electricity.

To try and protect people wearing the devices the boffins have come up with a new system, which uses a second transmitter to jam unauthorised signals in an implant’s operating frequency. In short this means that only authorised users will be able to communicate with it. This is because the jamming transmitter, rather than the implant, would handle encryption and authentication. And its good news for existing users as the bods claim that the system could work even with existing implants.

Known as a “shield” the jamming transmitter will be small enough to be disguised in a necklace or watch. It would be paired with a device authorised to access the implant, which would send encrypted instructions to the shield, which would decode and relay them.

However, they won’t be built into the device as this could cause problems if there is an emergency. And whether medical-device companies will invest in these or if patients will be willing to carry shields around with them depends on how grave they consider the threat of attack to be.