Millions of people use insulin pumps, pacemakers and other personal medical devices that rely on wireless communication to function. But what happens if someone was to tamper with that vital communication line between the health care provider and the patient?

Researchers from Purdue and Princeton universities have developed a solution to what could be catastrophic problem: a signal-jamming personal firewall for medical devices.

The research team created MedMon (medical monitoring), a firewall that detects potentially malicious communications going into or coming from the wearable or implanted device, such as brain implants under development to control epilepsy and smart prosthetics that make use of electronic chips.

After identifying malicious signals, MedMon employs electronic jamming, similar to technology used in military systems, to prevent any potentially harmful wireless commands from getting through to the device and causing it to falter or accept instructions that that could cause its wearer harm.

The possibility of an attack like this is not the stuff of science fiction. At last summer's Black Hat Security Conference, Jay Radcliffe, using his own wireless insulin pump and body sensor, demonstrated how a hacker could write a maliicous script, use it to intercept the transmission between the sensor and the glucose monitor, and then corrupt the signal and send it back to the sensor with commands to trick the patient — himself, in this case — into believing his blood sugar was off.

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The research team highlighted the need for its prototype by replicating, in the lab, an attack on a diabetes monitoring system, which consists of a continuous glucose monitor and an insulin pump that communicate wirelessly with each other.

Analyzing a commercially available glucose monitor, the scientists were able to eavesdrop on the wireless communication sent to the device — they used off-the-shelf software and hardware — and to reverse-engineer the communication protocol, discover the device PIN and send their own malicious data to it, including instructions to start and stop insulin injection.


The relatively easy ability with which they hacked the system was the impetus for MedMon, as they explained in their paper, "Hijacking an Insulin Pump: Security Attacks and Defenses for a Diabetes Therapy System."

Although personal health care technology, namely implantable and wearable devices, "are expected to transform health care by enabling diagnostics, monitoring, and therapy anytime, anywhere on a continuous and personalized basis," the researchers said, they identified a crucial downside to this convenience. "The consequences of security attacks can be extreme, often allowing attackers to cause the appliances to operate in a life-threatening manner."

The MedMon prototype could be worn as a necklace or integrated into the user's cellphone, explained Anand Raghunathan, a Purdue professor of electrical and computer engineering, who worked on the project with Princeton electrical engineering professor Niraj K. Jha and Princeton graduate student Chungxiao Li. MedMon is currently a proof-of-concept device, and would need to be miniaturized, the researchers said. They have filed a provisional patent for the concept.

The researchers realize that it is nearly impossible to prevent all attacks, but MedMon hopes to significantly mitigate the problems posed by hackers who would maliciously target a person's health.

"This is still not going to solve privacy concerns," Raghunathan said, noting that it's "extremely difficult" to make a totally hack-proof system. "Someone could still learn that you have a medical device, but hopefully they are not going to be able to do anything bad to you."

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