Last year alone, at least 28 hospital trusts in the United Kingdom had been hit by so-called “ransomware”, a form of computer virus that first encrypts every file on a server, and then demands payment, usually via bitcoin, to free them. Most often it finds its way on to servers when computer users in an organisation carelessly click on a link in an email.
But even more disturbing to read was the growing evidence that many of the smart medical devices ranging from automated pumps administering drugs to patients in hospitals to pacemakers designed to transmit information to and from remotely located doctors via broadband were shockingly vulnerable to being hacked.
An independent report by a software security company in the United States had found that one widely used home bedside monitoring system could be used “to reprogram and issue … commands to pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators, to drain batteries, turn devices off, or even deliver a heart-stopping fatal T-wave shock”. Even a moderately talented hacker, concluded the report, could easily “convert the devices into weapons”.
To those in the know, none of this is particularly new. In 2013, former US vice president Dick Cheneys cardiologist revealed that he had had the wireless function of his patients pacemaker disabled because “a sophisticated attacker might wirelessly access the device, reprogram it, and kill the vice president”.
Ransomware? Storm in a teacup. As for the potential for remote assassination via embedded smart medical device, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said that, while it was “aware of the potential for cybersecurity attacks”, there had been “no UK reports of any incidents”.
This episode should, but almost certainly wont, give us pause for thought. Stampeded by technology and telecoms industries that have been wildly successful in convincing us that access to high-speed internet is nothing short of a human right, we are rushing headlong into an era of unprecedented interconnectivity, without any real grasp of the possible consequences.
Connectivity sounds like a good thing. How convenient to be able to switch on the lights or air-conditioning in our homes via an app on our smartphone or to be able to store our digital photographs and sensitive documents on devices thousands of kilometres away. But how much of this “progress” is actually necessary, or even desirable?
Superficially, it is possible to make a more convincing case for connected medical devices. Manufacturers conjure visions of a world in which devices installed in your home can make a diagnosis at a distance, saving time and money at every step in the care chain.
But for whom? The benefits for the corporations developing the devices, and for the healthcare organisations hoping to cut their costs by deploying them, are obvious, but for the individual they are illusory.
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