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Heart-Hacking is Possible Paranoia

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 5:14pm
Julia Blaikie, WDD Intern

Patients used to make regular appointments to visit the doctor’s office, where their personal medical devices would be plugged in and data downloaded.

Now you can be relaxing at home, working at the office, or even swimming with dolphins in Barbados while your doctor downloads the devices that keep your heart pumping, insulin levels monitored, and keep you healthy. Wireless capabilities remove much of the hassle while assuring timely treatment, both for checkups and emergency situations.

Wireless connectivity brings major advancements to the medical sphere – but some, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, worry the risks outweigh the advantages.

Cheney, who has long suffered from heart problems, used an implanted defibrillator which detected irregular heartbeats and controlled them with electrical jolts. With the support of his cardiologist, however, he had the device’s wireless functions of the device disabled, fearing that terrorists would be able to hack into the system and kill him remotely.

It might sound like the former VP has a bad case of sci-fi-induced paranoia; however – whether or not terrorists are trying to kill him and whether or not they would have attempted the murder via heart-hacking – Cheney’s concerns are not ungrounded.

Medical devices are not immune to hacking. Like other electronic systems, they can be hacked, and while it may not make sense to think that anyone would want to wirelessly access your medical implant to destroy you, neither does thinking someone would want to send malicious viruses out to thousands of computers – and that happens all the time.

We implement layers of security to protect corporate and personal computers from hacking, careful to take care of devices that, while useful, are not crucial to our survival.

Wouldn’t it make sense to extend a proportionally higher level of caution to implanted medical devices, which keep us alive and have the power to kill if tampered with?

The possibility of interference may be slight, but security is like insurance: your house is probably not going to burn down, but it’s nice to know that if it does, it’s covered. In the same way, manufacturers and users should ensure their medical devices are secure, because if compromised, consequences could be severe.

With the rate of technological advancement, impossible feats regularly become possible. And while I’m all for progress, I can’t help but find the power of up-and-coming technology unsettling; I’d be wary enough living with an electronic device inside me even without remote control capabilities.

Despite my unease with the idea, I’d implant a wireless device if my heart were to fail, regardless of whether engineers have hack-proofed the technology. Would you?

Ask yourself this: is it worth it? Are people trying to kill you? Have you been watching too many sci-fi movies? There are always going to be risks in life, but at this stage, if I were to need a pacemaker, the possibility of terrorists hacking my health would be the least of my concerns.

Regardless of your choice in the same situation, it is important to be aware of the decision’s implications. The technology can be hacked, and therefore, fearing heart-hackers is more than paranoia. It’s paranoia with some truth to it. But with emerging awareness of security flaws, the hope is that the issue will be addressed sooner rather than later.

Would you fear heart hackers? Share your thoughts below.

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