This week, a team of McAfee researchers released a paper outlining a terrifying exploit. The paper describes, in great technical detail, how a malicious attacker could flip a cardiac rhythm display from 80 beats per minute to zero within less than five seconds.
This might not lead to severe harm or death, but it’s possible that other very negative outcomes could occur, notes Shaun Nordeck, MD, who’s quoted in the report. “Fictitious cardiac rhythms, even intermittent, could lead to extended hospitalization, additional testing, and side effects from medications prescribed to control heart rhythm and/or prevent clots,” he notes.
The paper does point out that if the bedside monitor is working normally, nurses have access to other accurate data, which could diminish the impact of such disruptions to some extent. However, the potential for adverse events is clearly higher than normal if someone scrambles a patient’s vitals.
Unfortunately, this is far from the only attack which wasn’t possible before connected devices became the norm. At various points, we’ve seen that pacemakers, insulin pumps and even MRIs can be hacked externally, particularly if their operating systems aren’t patched as required or haven’t put even basic security protections in place. (Think using “password” as a password.)
But while these vulnerabilities are largely known at this point, some healthcare organizations haven’t begun to tackle them. Solving these problems takes work, and costs money, The best-intentioned CIO might not get the budget to fix these problems if their CEO doesn’t see them as urgent.
Or let’s say the budget is available to begin the counterattack. Even if everyone agrees to tackle connected device vulnerabilities, where do we begin the counterattack? Which of these new connected health vulnerabilities are the most critical? On the one hand, hacking individual pacemakers doesn’t seem profitable enough to attract many cybercriminals. On the other, if I were a crook I might see the threat of meddling with a hospitals’ worth of patient monitors to be a great source of ransom money.
And this brings us to some tough ethical questions. Should we evaluate these threats by how many patients would be affected, or how many of the sickest patients? How do we calculate the clinical impact of vital signs hacking vs. generating inaccurate MRI results? To what extent should the administrative impact of these attacks be a factor in deciding how to defeat these challenges, if at all?
I know you’re going to tell me that this isn’t an all or nothing proposition, and that to some extent standard network intrusion detection techniques and tools will work. I’m not disputing this. However, I think we need to admit out loud that these kinds of attacks threaten individual lives in a way that traditional cyberattacks do not. For that reason, we need to get honest about who we need to protect — and why.