After Lawsuits And Denial, Pacemaker Vendor Finally Admits Its Product Is Hackable
from the digital wetworks dept
So we’ve noted how the lack of security in the Internet of Things is a bit of a problem. Initially, many of us thought that easily hacked smart tea kettles and smart refrigerators were kind of cute. Then we realized that this same, paper-mache grade security is also apparently embedded in everything from automobiles to medical gear. Then, more recently, we realized that all of these poorly-secured devices were being quickly compromised and used in botnets to help fuel massive, historically unprecedented, new DDoS attacks. The warnings were there all along, we just chose to ignore them.
For more than a decade people had been warning that the security on pacemakers simply wasn’t very good. Despite these warnings, many of these devices are still vulnerable to attack. This week the FDA was forced to issue a warning, noting that security vulnerabilities in the St. Jude Medical implantable cardiac device and corresponding Merlin@home Transmitter could be a serious problem. It’s notable as it’s the first time we’ve seen the government publicly acknowledge this specific type of threat.
The St. Jude Medical Merlin@home Transmitter uses a home monitor to transmit and receive RF signals wirelessly to the pacemaker. But the FDA found that this transmitter was vulnerable to attack, with the press release politely tap dancing around the fact that said vulnerability could be used to kill:
“The FDA has reviewed information concerning potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities associated with St. Jude Medical’s Merlin@home Transmitter and has confirmed that these vulnerabilities, if exploited, could allow an unauthorized user, i.e., someone other than the patient’s physician, to remotely access a patient’s RF-enabled implanted cardiac device by altering the Merlin@home Transmitter. The altered Merlin@home Transmitter could then be used to modify programming commands to the implanted device, which could result in rapid battery depletion and/or administration of inappropriate pacing or shocks.”
According to the FDA, they have no evidence of anybody dying because of the vulnerability yet. They’re also quick to note that St. Jude Medical issued a patch on January 9 that fixes this vulnerability. St. Jude Medical was quick to issue a statement patting itself on the back for patching its systems against “highly unlikely medical device cyber risks”:
“There has been a great deal of attention on medical device security and it’s critical that the entire industry continually enhances and improves security while bringing advanced care to patients,” said cyber security expert Ann Barron DiCamillo, former director of U.S. CERT and advisor to St. Jude Medical’s Cyber Security Medical Advisory Board. “Today’s announcement is another demonstration that St. Jude Medical takes cyber security seriously and is continuously reassessing and updating its devices and systems, as appropriate.”
Granted St. Jude Medical had previously received a bit of a nudge, and this isn’t the first time the company’s name has appeared in lights for the wrong reason. Security startup MedSec resorted to some creative tactics last year when it began shorting St. Jude Medical stock to try and highlight the company’s abysmal security, after the traditional vulnerability reporting process failed to get the company’s attention. At the time, MedSec Chief Executive Officer Justine Bone stated that the company consistently did little to nothing when vulnerabilities were reported:
“As far as we can tell, St. Jude Medical has done absolutely nothing to even meet minimum cybersecurity standards, in comparison to the other manufacturers we looked at that have made efforts,” Bone said. There are steps St. Jude can take relatively quickly to protect patients, including changing the programming of implanted pacemakers and defibrillators through a method that would involve a doctor’s visit, she said.”
St. Jude Medical’s first response was an outright denial, followed by a lawsuit against MedSec for “trying to frighten patients and caregivers.” Fast forward a few months, and St. Jude Medical is now trying to hold itself up as the poster child for proactive security and accountability. But the reality is that publicly shaming companies that can’t be bothered to prioritize user security (even when human lives are at risk) appears to pay notable dividends.