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Device Shields Implant Patients From 'Body Hacking'

Cloaking device can prevent pacemakers from remote tampering, hacking

A computer scientist who has undergone three pacemaker implant operations has created a wearable device that shields these devices from getting hacked.

The so-called “cloaking” device, akin to a medical alert bracelet but with computational and wireless communications features, was created in response to recent research showing how these wireless medical implantable devices could be hacked and turned off remotely, or used to send electric shocks through heart patients, according to a published report. The cloaking device only takes instructions from the patient’s doctor.

Tamara Denning, the computer scientist at the University of Washington who developed the cloaking device, said in a report that while pacemaker hacks seem unlikely, the flashing images posted to the Epilepsy Foundation Website last year seemingly to trigger seizures in patients visiting the site, demonstrate how hacks can exploit a patient’s vulnerabilities.

In a paper Denning co-authored with two other researchers who also worked on the cloaker project, the researchers acknowledge that the success of this approach relies on the patient wearing the device regularly and also that the device itself could serve as an unsettling reminder to the patient of his or her condition. And “since the device protects against wireless attacks that may or may not occur, the act of wearing the device may cause psychological distress to the patient that is disproportionate to the actual risk involved,” the paper said.

Meanwhile, the Harvard researcher who headed up the pacemaker hack says a cloaking device isn’t realistic. In an emergency, it could be difficult for doctors to find and disable in order to treat a patient. “You're asking hundreds of thousands or millions of people to wear something every day for a theoretical risk,'” Harvard’s William Maisel said in the published report.

— Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

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