Submitted by Micah Smith on Mon, 01/15/2018 - 10:29
Brainjacking: The Vulnerability of Medical Implants.
Brainjacking: The Vulnerability of Medical Implants.

The world today is incredibly interconnected with almost all aspect of life depending on its wirelessly controlled devices. Such interconnection, however, leaves room for vulnerabilities. Such weaknesses are found within minor errors in code’s syntax or logic, yet this is all a cyber attacker may need to wreak havoc.

To date, we are yet to figure out how to protect our phones or computers whiles hackers are already breaking into cars, houses and power grid systems. Perhaps the biggest threat posed yet is for implanted medical devices. With a few lines of code, a hacker can control a patient’s pacemaker, or any other medical implants regardless of where they are situated in the body.

It has already been demonstrated by experts how, with ease, it is to break into insulin pumps or pacemakers, for example. Such vulnerability poses a lethal threat to tenss of thousands of potential victims. According to research, the global market is on the rise for implants with an extrapolated size of $54 billion by 2025. With the increase in cases of health conditions that require technological support of life, implants have improved in complexity with manufacturers opting for wireless technologies in communication once embedded into the body. Patients and doctors can exchange vital information with such wireless provisions.

Medical implant security aims at avoiding hacker-created heart failures, sugar-related deaths, among other catastrophic consequences of messing with life support devices.

In a recent paper by Oxford Functional Neurosurgery, brain implants are a new frontier which is vulnerable to unauthorized control "brainjacking". It may occur during;

Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)

DBS involves electrodes being placed deep into the brain with wires running under the skin and connected to an implanted stimulator. The simulator is a complete electronic device with a board and processor. It is crucial in treating a broad range of disorders. It is mostly used for treatment to Parkinson's disease, dystonia, essential tremor and chronic pain. To achieve such remarkable benefits, DBS is directly interfaced with the brain. Nonetheless, with wireless capabilities and direct interfacing with the brain, the DBS is vulnerable to attacks.

Altering the DBS settings and playing around with it, at the expense of the patient could be more painful that living without simulation. This is what is likely to happen during a hack. Other attacks may inhibit movement exemplified by Parkinson's patients. The attacks may escalate to changes in behaviors such as heightened sexuality or pathological gambling following a hack.

Solutions to such attacks are continually being proposed and researched on. Moreover, implants are faced with a lot of contracts such a physical size and battery capacity as well as ergonomics feasibility. With the need for emergency access, they are fitted with backdoors. Today, it's equally possible to monitor an implant using the internet or with phones too. Building such functionalities should be guided by security in efforts of alleviating the risks. Regardless of their complexity, this is likely to be a fascinating field for future hackers.

The potential for cyber extortion is huge and the designers of Medical Implants should be planning for future threats at each stage of development.