Hacking portable medical devices for good, not evil

The hacking of Internet-connected medical devices has been the subject of fiction and in fact is a real threat. As Forbes put it in a December 2012 article, “…as we put more electronic devices into our bodies, we must address the serious security challenges that come with them.  We are familiar with the threat that cyber-crime poses to the computers around us—however, we have not yet prepared for the threat it may pose to the computers inside of us.” (Click here for the complete article.) The threat caused Dick Cheney's doctor to disable the wireless functionality of the former vice president's heart implant to thwart any assignation attempt.

Now Kate Linebaugh in the Wall Street Journal is reporting that medical device hacking is continuing, but this time for good, not evil. She recounts the case of a child with Type 1 diabetes who wears a glucose monitor that transmits readings to a nearby receiver. But the father couldn't let the child go on sleepovers because that would put her out of the range of the receiver. Then the father found NightScout, a system that hacks the glucose monitor and uploads the readings to the Internet, where he can see it on his smart watch.

Writes Linebaugh, “Technologically savvy patients are starting to tinker under the hoods of medical contraptions, seeking more influence over devices like blood-sugar monitors, insulin pumps and defibrillators that record and control bodily functions. Their goal is greater access to data and faster invention than is possible under the formal regulatory process.”

The FDA and medical-device makers are concerned about the hacking, Linebaugh reports, but are not taking issue with the NightScout technology for now. For its part, the NightScout team has prepared a presubmission to the FDA.

Linebaugh writes that NightScout users and developers communicate via Facebook, with developers making fixes as bugs arise. This “release and repair approach,” she writes, “is typical of Silicon Valley, where speed is at a premium, but alien to the medical business, where liability and regulators are major concerns.”

See related article, “Consumer technology boosts mobile healthcare.” And in addition to hacking medical devices, citizens can hack their cars, as outlined in “OpenXC paves road for makers and tinkerers.”

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