The past few years have produced innovative health-oriented networking
and wireless communication technologies, ranging from
low-power medical radios that harvest body energy to wireless
sensor networks for in-home monitoring and diagnosis. Today,
such wireless systems have become an intrinsic part of many
modern medical devices. In particular, implantable medical
devices (IMDs), including pacemakers, cardiac defibrillators, insulin
pumps, and neurostimulators all feature wireless communication
Adding wireless connectivity to IMDs has enabled remote
monitoring of patients’ vital signs and improved care providers’
ability to deliver timely treatment, leading to a better health care
Recent work at the computer science department in UMASS, has shown that such wireless connectivity can be exploited to compromise the confidentiality of the IMD’s transmitted data or to send the IMD unauthorized commands— even commands that cause the IMD to deliver an electric shock to the patient. In other systems, designers use cryptographic methods to provide confidentiality and prevent unauthorized access. However, adding cryptography directly to IMDs themselves is difficult for the following reasons:
• Inalterability: In the U.S. alone, there are millions of people who already have wireless IMDs, and about 300,000 such IMDs are implanted every year. Once implanted, an IMD can last up to 10 years, and replacing it requires surgery that carries risks of major complications. Incorporating cryptographic mechanims into existing IMDs may be infeasible because of limited device memory and hence can only be achieved by replacing the IMDs. This is not an option for people who have IMDs or may acquire them in the near future.
• Safety: It is crucial to ensure that health care professionals always have immediate access to an implanted device. However, if cryptographic methods are embedded in the IMD itself, the device may deny a health care provider access unless she has the right credentials. Yet, credentials might not be available in scenarios where the patient is at a different hospital, the patient is unconscious, or the cryptographic key storage is damaged or unreachable. Inability to temporarily adjust or disable an IMD could prove fatal in emergency situations.
• Maintainability: Software bugs are particularly problematic for IMDs because they can lead to device recalls. In the last eight years, about 1.5 million software-based medical devices were recalled. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of recalls of software-based medical devices more than doubled; more than 11% of all medical-device recalls during this time period were attributed to software failures. Such recalls are costly and could require surgery if the model is already implanted. Thus, it is desirable to limit IMDs’ software to only medically necessary functions.
This project explores the feasibility of protecting IMDs without modifying them by implementing security mechanisms entirely on an external device. Such an approach enhances the security of IMDs for patients who already have them, empowers medical personnel to access a protected IMD by removing the external device or powering it off, and does not in itself increase the risk of IMD recalls.