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Pacemakers, defibrillators open to attack

Crims could send 830 volts straight to your heart

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Pacemakers and implanted defibrillators are vulnerable to wireless attacks that could kill tens of thousands, says the security researcher best known for "jackpotting" an ATM on stage at the BlackHat security conference in Las Vegas in 2010.

The researcher in question, Barnaby Jack, today told the Ruxcon Breakpoint security conference in Melbourne, Australia that “the most obvious scenario would be a targeted attack against a high profile individual.”

Jack also warned of a worst-case scenario in which a worm could infect multiple devices, spreading from patient to patient, re-flashing the devices with malicious code as it foes. This code could be programmed to deliver fatal shocks to patients implanted with vulnerable implants at a scheduled time.

Such an attack would be possible because pacemakers possess a wireless interface designed to deliver telemetry and allow maintenance. But Jack, who works for US-based security company IOActive, has subverted security in that interface and showed delegates a video demonstration of a wireless attack against an Implantable Cardioverter-Defibrillator (ICD). "There's 830 volts going into the heart there, which is a bummer," he said as an audible zap played over the conference audio system.

Hacking the devices was too easy, Jack says. "There's no attempt to obfuscate or hide anything from a would-be attacker".

They key problem is the devices rely solely on the device's serial and device numbers for authentication. Unfortunately it's trivial to enumerate these numbers wirelessly, authenticate to the device and reprogram them with malicious code.

In addition to his much-publicised attacks against ATMs, Jack recently made headlines when he reverse engineered and exploited insulin pumps, but the issues identified in his latest research are grave; millions of people worldwide rely on pacemakers and ICDs.

Jack says medical device manufacturers should be held liable for vulnerabilities in their products. "I 100% agree that they should be held liable… removing liability from the manufacturers is ridiculous. It allows them to write shoddy code and have no consequences from it," he says.

In the meantime, he recommends a complete redesign of the devices' security model, starting with the introduction of encrypted communications between devices and transmitters and a "reasonable" authentication scheme.

Jack did not identify affected vendors and says he hopes to work with them to improve the devices' security. ®

Patrick Gray's Risky Business podcast will bring Reg readers special coverage of the Ruxcon Breakpoint conference.

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