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November 30, 2022
Science and Medical

Can "Internet-of-Body" Thwart Cyber Attacks on Implanted Medical Devices?

Medtronic discloses medical device vulnerabilities, while Purdue University scientists propose countermeasure to block attacks

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security last week warned that numerous medical devices made by Medtronic are vulnerable to cyber attack. The vulnerabilities affect 17 of the company’s implantable cardiac device models and the external equipment used to communicate with them. 

A Medtronic spokesperson told IEEE Spectrum that the company voluntarily disclosed the vulnerabilities to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and that “no cyberattack, privacy breach, or patient harm has been observed or associated with these issues.”

At risk are certain models of heart-regulating devices: implantable cardiac resynchronization therapy/defibrillators (CRT-Ds) and implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs). CRT-Ds send electrical impulses to the lower chambers of the heart to help them beat together in a more synchronized pattern. ICDs deliver electrical impulses to correct fast heart rhythms. External computers program the devices and retrieve information. 

Such devices emit radio frequency signals that can be detected up to several meters from the body. A malicious individual nearby could conceivably hack into the signal to jam it, alter it, or snoop on it, according to the Feds’ warning.

Signals that are unencrypted, as was the case with Medtronic’s devices, make intentional interception easy, says Shreyas Sen, an electrical and computer engineer at Purdue University. “It would be like sitting in a room listening to someone speaking in plain language,” he says.

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