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Medical implant vulnerability is not fundamental

By Alan Richardson - Last updated: Friday, May 11, 2012

A number of recent reports have highlighted the potential vulnerability of medical implants to hacker attack. This is a risk that must be taken seriously and managed in innovative medical product development when wireless links are made fundamental to the safe and effective provision of a life critical therapy.

It is undoubtedly possible to produce radio linked devices for many applications that are vulnerable to attack and vulnerability tends to increase for battery powered devices because some cryptographic and authentication functions use significant energy. Of course with a medical device, even if the device had sophisticated protection against such attack, if a persistent attack merely drained the battery this could have a life threatening effect in itself.

It is however giving up far too easily to say that because only a small energy source can be afforded that therefore no authentication or cryptographic protection can be provided. It is for the designers of such an implant to ensure that its operation remains safe under reasonable attck of this kind. They need to take a system view not a component view to manage these risks successfully. These problems are not entirely new either as there are an increasing number of battery powered radio linked devices that handle data of economic value that have to be proof against such attacks. They typically wake up seldom, do something secure using quasi-asymmetric techniques to minimise radio vulnerability. As time goes by silicon processes get smaller and the associated voltage and current reduces leading to a substantial reduction in energy usage for the same digital processing power so this will mean that for the same energy source, more processing power will be available for resilience against such hacker attacks as technology progresses. Another example of a system approach to this threat has been reported by researchers from MIT where a separate jamming system is used to provide resilience against hacker attack.


AuthorAlan Richardson

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