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Medical devices, personal health data the new ‘Target’ for hackers

In a 2012 episode of the acclaimed TV series “Homeland,” the Vice President of the United States is killed by lead character and treacherous spy Nicholas Brody. Brody does not use a gun, a bomb or even poison to take out the second most powerful leader in the free world, instead he hacks into the VP’s pacemaker and accelerates his heart beat leading to a fatal heart attack.

And while this Hollywood plotline seems far-fetched, concerns about rogue bad guys, international hacking groups and even other nation states hacking into medical devices for nefarious reasons or hacking into health networks to steal consumers’ personal health data has become a huge concern for medical companies, healthcare groups and the FDA.

Here are some important facts to keep in mind:

  • Due to the sophistication of today’s hackers, any connected medical device – from a pacemaker to a kidney dialysis device to a hospital’s radiation delivery system – is considered a target. And just like your home PC or tablet, medical devices use software that needs to be constantly updated to patch vulnerabilities. Hackers thrive on finding “zero-day” or new vulnerabilities in software that have not been updated as a way to break in and cause havoc. In fact, just last month the FDA warned medical facilities that they should stop using a well-known medication infusion pump because of its vulnerability to hacking.
  • Personal health data is considered more valuable than credit card numbers by hackers on the black market. This data has a longer shelf life and while a credit card can always be cancelled or expire, a person’s health information – social security number, health history, chronic conditions, prescriptions – cannot be wiped out as easily and has the potential to cause problems to victims for months, years or even decades after it is stolen. Imagine if a hacker finds out a presidential candidate has a history of drug abuse or has been treated for a sexually transmitted disease.
  • There have been several high profile cyberattacks against healthcare organizations in the recent months, including Anthem and Premera Blue Cross, in which hackers have stolen the personal health data of millions of people. In fact, these attacks on healthcare groups are happening so often, there is almost a health hack fatigue in the media.

Are we entering a new era in which the bad guys have now set their sights on medical devices and valuable personal health data?

How will hackers exploit these problems and what can device manufacturers, healthcare groups and the FDA do to better protect devices and data while still keeping their eye on innovation?

The Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council (MassMEDIC) will host an important conference that will take on some these issues.

MassMEDIC’s  “Preventing the Unthinkable: Issues in MedTech Cyber Security—Trends and Policies” conference will feature government officials, industry leaders and security experts giving their perspectives on this challenging topic at Microsoft New England Research and Development Center in Cambridge on Thursday, Oct. 1.

The keynote speaker, Hiawatha Bray, technology reporter for The Boston Globe, will provide his perspective on the local tech scene, with a special emphasis on health IT and the Internet of Things. The event will also feature: Jim Finkle, cyber security reporter at Reuters; Suzanne Schwartz, the FDA’s Director of Emergency Preparedness/Operations and Medical Countermeasures; and a number of high ranking medtech executives. In the video below, panel moderator and MSLGROUP vice president Bill Keeler shares his perspective on why health data security is such a hot-button issue.

Registration is now open. More information about tickets is available at MassMEDIC’s website.

Blog home page image of computer and stethoscope courtesy of Flickr user Cris Mag.

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Jon Siegal

Jon Siegal

Account Director (Healthcare) at MSLGROUP

With nearly 18 years of PR experience, Jon is an account director in MSLGROUP’s Boston healthcare practice.

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