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DHS warns of vulns in hospital medical equipment

Has your doctor's anasthesia machine been hacked?

Photo of the Starship Enterprise's sick bay

The US Department of Homeland Security has warned hospitals and health clinics that many of the electronic medical devices in use at their facilities may be vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks.

The affected devices include surgical and anesthesia devices, ventilators, drug infusion pumps, external defibrillators, patient monitors, laboratory and analysis equipment, and more, according to an alert issued on Thursday by the DHS's Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT).

The problem? Many of these devices were designed with hard-coded passwords that could allow hackers with knowledge of the manufacturer's practices to modify their settings or install rogue firmware, the report states.

The report labels this practice "poor credentials management," but we'd more describe it as a giant freakin' backdoor where the key is hidden under the welcome mat.

This isn't the first time security researchers have uncovered vulnerabilities in medical gear. A number of potential attacks on such implanted devices as pacemakers, defibrillators, and insulin pumps have been identified. But Thursday's warning is the first to raise the issue that external equipment may also be vulnerable – and a great deal of it, to boot.

To mitigate the possibility of attacks, ICS-CERT recommends that healthcare facilities take whatever steps they can to isolate medical devices from the internet and even from the business LAN, including placing them behind firewalls and using VPNs for access where possible.

Physical access to medical equipment by the general public should also be restricted, and any ports that could be used to update a device's firmware should be secured.

ICS-CERT further recommends that hospital staffers familiarize themselves with the best practices for industrial control system security found on the US-CERT website – noting that, although medical devices are not technically industrial control systems, many of the same recommendations apply.

"The extent to which security controls are needed will depend on the medical device, its environment of use, the type and probability of the risks to which it is exposed, and the probable risks to patients from a security breach," states a notice from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is working with ICS-CERT on the issue.

Organizations that do find evidence of tampering or other malicious activity should report the incidents to both ICS-CERT and the FDA.

If there's a silver lining to all of this scary talk, however, it's that attacks on medical devices are so far mainly hypothetical – as far as we know, at any rate.

"The FDA is not aware of any patient injuries or deaths associated with these incidents," the agency's bulletin states, "nor do we have any indication that any specific devices or systems in clinical use have been purposely targeted at this time." Whew! ®

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