Big Data Is Breaking Our Hearts


Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, or maybe just a case of heightened awareness, but right after I concluded that data is the new fracking -- something scary, misunderstood, and prone to hyperbole -- I stumbled on more evidence to support my hypothesis.

And all I did was tune in to watch the latest episodes of Showtime's Homeland.

If you were among the record 2.3 million viewers who watched the season two finale recently, you already understand what I mean. If not, let me bring you up to speed.

Homeland is a psychological thriller starring Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operations officer who is convinced a former American prisoner in Iraq was turned by the enemy and poses a significant risk to national security. The latest plot twist had terrorists hacking into the vice president's pacemaker -- and delivering enough jolts to cause a fatal heart attack.

As Pat Calhoun, senior vice president and general manager, Network Security at McAfee, wrote in a CNBC guest blog:

His death was the terrifying result of a pacemaker sent into super-fibrillation by a 20-something terrorist located continents away using his laptop and a stolen serial number to hack the wirelessly controlled medical device and instruct it to kill its host... Homeland's writers didn't know it but they just sent a national wake-up call.

Scary, right? And even though some medical professionals, including Dr. Charles Lampe, a cardiac electrophysiologist in Dallas, claim such a scenario is "very, very unlikely," there may be real reasons for concern.

Weeks before the episode of Homeland aired, a professional hacker warned that pacemakers could be infiltrated to deliver deadly shocks. Barnaby Jack, director of embedded device security at IOActive in San Francisco, demonstrated how this could happen at the Breakpoint 2012 security conference in Melbourne, Australia.

Jack used a laptop to send a series of 830-volt shocks to a remote pacemaker -- similar to the attack featured in Homeland. He also used another "secret function" he said pacemakers possess to activate all pacemakers and implantable defibrillators within a 30-foot radius, forcing the devices to give up their serial numbers and paving the way for an "anonymous assassin" to commit "mass murder."

It wasn't the first time Jack detailed the potential security risks from medical devices. In early 2012, while still working as a security researcher at McAfee, Jack demonstrated ways to remotely hack into medical devices such as insulin pumps and pacemakers.

Wireless pacemakers can report diagnostic information from the patient to his medical team 24 hours a day. They haven't been around very long -- in 2010, 82-year-old Floyd Edminston was described as "one of the first patients in the country" to get one during surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. But it didn't take long for concerns about possible hacks of the data-driven devices to emerge, as a 2011 story in Scientific American explains:

Some experiments to "hack" into pacemakers capable of communicating wirelessly with computers and smart phones have been demonstrated by security researchers, but there have been no reported incidents of wireless pacemaker data being tampered with to the detriment of a patient.

Still, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts Amherst developed an anti-hacking jamming device that could be used to shield pacemakers from cyber attackers. Researchers presented "They Can Hear Your Heartbeats: Non-Invasive Security for Implantable Medical Devices" at the SIGCOMM communications conference in August 2011.

Too bad the vice president in that episode of Homeland didn't have one.

Noreen Seebacher,

Noreen Seebacher, the Community Editor of Investor Uprising, has been a business journalist for more than 20 years. A New York City based writer and editor, she has worked for numerous print and online publications. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Post, New York’s Daily News, The Detroit News, and the Pittsburgh Press. She co-edited five newsletters for Real Estate Media’s GlobeSt.com and served as the site's technology editor.

She also championed the commercial real estate beat at The Journal News, a Gannett publication in suburban New York City, and co-founded a Website focused on personal finance. Through her own company, Stasa Media, Noreen has produced reports, whitepapers, and internal publications for a number of Fortune 500 clients. When she's not writing, editing, or Web surfing, she relaxes in an 1875 Victorian with her husband and their five kids, four formerly homeless cats, and a dog.

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Re: Medical device hacking
  • 7/12/2013 11:34:01 PM
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..

Noreen writes


A hacker messing with your medical device can make you sicker, or even put you at risk of death.

The FDA has issued an alert recommending that medical device manufacturers and health- care facilities take steps to assure that appropriate safeguards are in place to reduce the risk of failure due to cyberattack. Such attacks can result from malware sent directly to the medical equipment or by unauthorized access to configuration settings in medical devices and hospital networks.

At this point, the alert is strictly a warning—the FDA is not aware of any patient injuries or deaths associated with hacking, nor does it have any indication that any specific devices or systems in clinical use have been purposely targeted.

Thoughts please?


 

Well, Noreen in her blog describes the Homeland plot involving the death of the (fictional) VP which "was the terrifying result of a pacemaker sent into super-fibrillation by a 20-something terrorist located continents away using his laptop and a stolen serial number to hack the wirelessly controlled medical device and instruct it to kill its host..."

Noreen then notes: "And even though some medical professionals, including Dr. Charles Lampe, a cardiac electrophysiologist in Dallas, claim such a scenario is 'very, very unlikely,' there may be real reasons for concern."

When I first read it, my reaction to this cardiac electrophysiologist's assessment was that  "very, very unlikely" does NOT mean "never" or "impossible".

Still, if you need a pacemaker, you probably should go ahead and get one, particularly if you're not the VP.

 

Medical device hacking
  • 7/2/2013 12:47:57 PM
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I should say "told you so." But I won't.

A hacker messing with your medical device can make you sicker, or even put you at risk of death.

The FDA has issued an alert recommending that medical device manufacturers and health- care facilities take steps to assure that appropriate safeguards are in place to reduce the risk of failure due to cyberattack. Such attacks can result from malware sent directly to the medical equipment or by unauthorized access to configuration settings in medical devices and hospital networks.

At this point, the alert is strictly a warning—the FDA is not aware of any patient injuries or deaths associated with hacking, nor does it have any indication that any specific devices or systems in clinical use have been purposely targeted.

Thoughts please?

Re: The tech. is new but the threats...not really
  • 1/11/2013 9:34:39 AM
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It is amazing how fiction writers can come up scenarios that evetually can be truelife adventures. Anything that only seemed to be fantasy eventually comes to be fact.

I would suppose the CIA and other agencies regularly employ science fiction writers, and others with fertile imaginations just to come up with ideas to research like this one.

Re: The tech. is new but the threats...not really
  • 1/9/2013 9:32:47 AM
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Good thing you like berries, Lyndon! But will your cave have Wi-Fi?

Re: The tech. is new but the threats...not really
  • 1/9/2013 7:01:54 AM
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@Lyndon_Henry,

I understand and share your position: No need to blow things out of proportion. The probability that pacemaker "hacking" would happen is very low and the advantages of using the device outweigh all potential threats.

Re: The tech. is new but the threats...not really
  • 1/9/2013 6:54:20 AM
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@Alexis,

"Why does it have to be a wireless pacemaker? Why not opt for the old fashioned kind?"

Wireless pacemakers are smaller and lighter than the old fashioned kinds. Besides the old ones have wires that make them difficult to handle. 

Re: The tech. is new but the threats...not really
  • 1/8/2013 6:46:03 PM
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Why does it have to be a wireless pacemaker? Why not opt for the old fashioned kind?

Re: The tech. is new but the threats...not really
  • 1/8/2013 6:13:25 PM
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..

Beth writes


But how much of a concern is this for the average Joe, even the average Joe with a pacemaker? I can see the elderly guy telling his doctor he refuses to have a pacemaker installed for fear of it being used by terrorists to kill him. Next stop: pysch eval!


 

I tend to agree with Beth's implication that fear over wirelessly hijacked pacemakers may be overblown.  It seems possible, but in the scheme of things, fearing implantation of a pacemaker itself when it's medically necessary would seem far more dangerous.

If a terrorist wanted to do some damage, a magnetic bomb could potentially do far more, depending on its size and scale.  A substantial one could knock out a city's power system, shut down all transportation (except, say, bicycles and skateboards), shut down all medical devices, including implanted ones like pacemakers, shut down all battery-operated devices...

Wow ... With that possibility hovering over me, I'd better make plans to get back to the cave and resume a subsistence life based on hunting and perhaps grubbing...

 

Re: The tech. is new but the threats...not really
  • 1/7/2013 2:56:33 PM
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I have to agree that the ability to attack multiple devices is pretty scary. Even more so if this kind of thing can be done in an automated manner.

Could the serial numbers of these devices become information for sale to the highest bidder wanting to stage an attack on random americans? pretty scary stuff when you think about it.

Re: The tech. is new but the threats...not really
  • 1/7/2013 2:52:52 PM
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But how much of a concern is this for the average Joe, even the average Joe with a pacemaker? I can see the elderly guy telling his doctor he refuses to have a pacemaker installed for fear of it being used by terrorists to kill him. Next stop: pysch eval!

 

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