There is a very long tradition of hacking your own stuff in the security community, but when it comes to hacking yourself, Marie Moe is in a different league. Dr. Moe, who is now a senior security consultant at Oslo-based cybersecurity firm mnemonic, has also served as a scientific researcher at SINTEF and a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). But an even more interesting thing about Dr. Moe – who has a pacemaker installed in her body – is that she became very curious about its security profile.
Five years ago in 2015, about four years after getting a BIOTRONIK CardioMessenger II pacemaker put in her body, Marie initiated the Pacemaker Hacking Project. The main focus at the time was to understand how the very device her life depends on would withstand outside security scrutiny. In short, Marie wanted to know whether someone could hack her heart.
In July 2020, Marie released a set of security findings that had been embargoed for over a year in a coordinated vulnerability disclosure process. Ultimately, though the five vulnerabilities she and her research group found are serious enough to warrant their own CERT Advisory and involvement of the Federal Drug Administration, the vendor does not plan to issue any product updates. Note for the record that so far, “no known public exploits specifically target these vulnerabilities,” the Advisory says. Also note that these vulnerabilities can’t be used to directly reprogram a pacemaker or hack someone’s heart.
The five vulnerabilities are:
- Improper authentication
- Cleartext credential transmission before encryption
- Credential reuse
- In-the-clear storage of medical data
- Incorrect password storage on device
A technical description of the testing and analysis project carried out by Guillaume Bour to uncover these vulnerabilities can be found here.
Who’s at Risk
Pacemaker devices are a big industry, with an estimated one million of them installed in patients every year. Remote data-gathering and transmission over the Internet is now standard issue. This usually involves a home monitoring unit that is issued to the patient when they are sent home with a new pacemaker. So all of these patients are at risk of having their medical data extracted.
As even security beginners know, when you connect a device (or devices) through a public communications network, care must be taken not to expose the system to attacker-in-the-middle attacks. This is particularly concerning when it comes to medical data that directly impact a patient’s life. Apparently, the pacemaker in question sets up its communications particularly poorly.
How Do We Fix This?
Medical devices like pacemakers are not the only Internet-enabled devices entering mainstream consumer and enterprise situations. In the not-too-distant future, coming across a non Internet-enabled device will be the rare event — that is, everything will at the very least communicate across the Net. The obvious solution to eradicating vulnerabilities like the ones Marie and her group found is building security in. The days of fly-by-night security communications protocol design and super-weak applied cryptography are numbered. Right?
Gary McGraw is co-founder of the Berryville Institute of Machine Learning. He is a globally recognized authority on software security and the author of eight best selling books on this topic. His titles include Software Security, Exploiting Software, Building Secure Software, … View Full Bio