The Internet of (Medical) Things: Dangers, Risks, and Security Problems

James Frew 09-05-2018

You may have heard the phrase “your health is your wealth.” It’s one of the reasons the US spent over $3.2 trillion on healthcare in 2015 alone.


With so much money floating around, it’s only natural that a lot of businesses have entered the healthcare market—including technology companies.

Medical technology sometimes feels dated, but companies are intent on dragging those devices into the 21st century. And while internet connectivity might seem like a great feature to have, there are some real dangers and issues that could surprise you.

What Are Medical Devices?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a medical device as “any instrument, apparatus, implement, machine, appliance, implant, reagent for in vitro use, software, material […] intended by the manufacturer to be used […] for human beings, for one or more […] specific medical purpose”.

Although that sounds quite complicated, it just means any device or software that may be used for medical purposes.

Health, Internet of Things


The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulatory oversight of medical devices and splits them into three categories: Class I, Class II, and Class III. Class 1 devices are lightly regulated, with most controls only placed on how they are manufactured and marketed. Class II adds more specific regulation, and Class III is reserved for devices which support or sustain human life.

However, as is typical around the world, the FDA has struggled to keep up with the pace of innovation. There are few references to how modern, internet-connected devices should be regulated.

What steps should manufacturers be putting in place to ensure the security of such devices? In December 2016, the FDA did release guidance on medical device security, but they aren’t legally enforceable. This left manufacturers to decide whether to follow the advice or not.

The Internet of (Medical) Things

This puts internet-connected medical devices in the same boat as those in the broader Internet of Things (IoT) category. There are many benefits to IoT medical devices 5 Ways the Internet of Things Is Revolutionizing Healthcare Here are some of the coolest (and most important) ways that connected technology is revolutionizing the medical world. Read More , but the lack of enforceable regulation means that manufacturers aren’t likely to put many resources into securing them.


That’s just one of the many reasons why the Internet of Things is a security nightmare Why The Internet of Things Is The Biggest Security Nightmare One day, you arrive home from work to discover that your cloud-enabled home security system has been breached. How could this happen? With Internet of Things (IoT), you could find out the hard way. Read More . Additionally, we literally place our lives in the hands of medical IoT devices. As such, the stakes are even higher than with regular IoT devices.

Healthcare is an expensive business, not just for patients, but for the providers themselves. Companies charge vast sums of money for new devices and technical support. This means hospitals and other medical practices are a jumble of tools—some new, some old with a range of different operating requirements. Old hardware, legacy software, and proprietary interfaces all come together to make appropriately securing the system a nightmare for the provider’s IT department.

Example: Eavesdropping on a Medical Pump

The interface between software and hardware often exposes exploitable vulnerabilities, as Saurabh Harit showed at Black Hat Europe 2017. He obtained an IV infusion pump, which injects medications into a patient’s blood, which could be programmed and operated remotely.

Health, Internet of Things


After accessing the pump’s admin mode with a default password found online, he was able to use the unit’s infrared and an old PDA purchased from eBay to import their Wi-Fi credentials to the pump’s network settings.

Health, Internet of Things

Using Wireshark (one of many open source network security tools How To Test Your Home Network Security With Free Hacking Tools No system can be entirely "hack proof" but browser security tests and network safeguards can make your set-up more robust. Use these free tools to identify "weak spots" in your home network. Read More ) to inspect the packets, Harit viewed patient data like medication dose, caregiver, name, location, and route. Amazingly he was even able to access the Master Drugs List which sets and maintains the prescribed dosage.

The List of Examples Goes On…

If such vulnerabilities were limited to this one pump, it would be shocking enough, but researchers regularly uncover new ones. One team was able to gain access to a CT scanner, a device which gives you a small dose of radiation to create 3D models of inside your body.


Health, Internet of Things

In August 2017, the FDA recalled 465,000 pacemakers made by Abbott over hacking concerns. Instead of forcing almost half a million people to undergo invasive surgery, Abbott issued a firmware patch, which medical staff were able to apply to the pacemaker.

Back in 2014, the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) began investigating 24 devices over suspected critical flaws. Devices included an infusion pump from Hospira Inc and implantable heart devices from Medtronic and St Jude Medical.

Legacy Medical Devices and Poor Security

If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ll know that many businesses rely on legacy software. This invariably requires older operating systems, drivers, and peripherals, making them very insecure. Cost is usually a deciding factor in whether to update, and many decide they can’t justify the expense. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Businesses often struggle to prioritize cybersecurity, with a prevailing attitude that if an attack hasn’t happened yet, then it won’t. Unfortunately, healthcare providers aren’t immune to this line of thinking either. In May 2017 a ransomware attack, dubbed WannaCry The Global Ransomware Attack and How to Protect Your Data A massive cyberattack has struck computers around the globe. Have you been affected by the highly virulent self-replicating ransomware? If not, how can you protect your data without paying the ransom? Read More , almost simultaneously infected 300,000 computers, many belonging to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

The ransomware affected over 40 NHS Trusts around the country, reducing patient care, closing surgeries, and even close hospitals. The effects of the attack put patients at risk and potentially undermined the security of their data too. Sadly, Microsoft released a patch one month before the attack, which would have prevented WannaCry from taking hold. Not only was the update not rolled out, but as it turned out many computers were still running Windows XP.

This is despite extended support for the 15-year-old operating system having ended two years before the attack.

The Future of Medical Devices Freaks Me Out

Technology continues to deliver significant advancements in medical treatment 8 Medical Tech Breakthroughs That You May Need One Day Believe it or not, the speed of technological advancements is still increasing -- and a lot of breakthroughs are happening in the medical field. Check out these amazing new things! Read More , but it isn’t the medical sector’s saving grace as the UK’s NHS discovered. According to the Government’s Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, up to 270 women may have died after a “computer algorithm error” failed to invite 450,000 women to regular breast cancer screening.

Unlike many other areas affected by the advancement of technology, medical devices can be a matter of life or death. As Moore’s law enables more devices to come online in the coming years, manufacturers must prioritize security. After all, it’s no good designing a “killer feature” if that turns out to be a devastatingly accurate description.

Explore more about: Health, Internet of Things.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Enjoyed this article? Stay informed by joining our newsletter!

Enter your Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. dragonmouth
    May 10, 2018 at 1:31 pm

    At its current state, especially as far as security is concerned, IoT is for ID10Ts.

    • James Frew
      May 10, 2018 at 1:34 pm

      At least we get a choice with consumer tech - we don't often get to choose or even approve of medical devices!

      • dragonmouth
        May 10, 2018 at 2:36 pm

        "At least we get a choice with consumer tech"
        That is of great comfort. NOT! We get the choice of which consumer products will leak our information and/or be compromised by hackers.

        The lack of security on medical devices obviates HIPAA in the US and similar laws in other countries. Unfortunately, there is no practical way of forcing medical device manufacturers to harden their devices. Even if patients die because ransomware locks up devices, or because hackers change the medicine dosages, the companies will evade responsibility.

        IoT is convenient but the price of that convenience is security and privacy.

        • James Frew
          May 10, 2018 at 6:13 pm

          Yes, just because we have a choice, doesn't mean that vendors should be able to take a lax approach to our security. Unfortunately you are most likely right that companies will avoid any negative outcomes - you only have to look at how Equifax has completley dodged any reprecussions from last year's hack!