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Perimeter

2/1/2010
02:50 PM
John H. Sawyer
John H. Sawyer
Commentary
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When Software Glitches Are Fatal -- Literally

Hearing about how many companies were hacked during the Aurora attacks due to a software vulnerability in Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) is frustrating. Now another attack is ready to be unveiled at Black Hat DC that also uses an IE "feature." The thought of what can and has happened because of these flaws is scary -- theft of personal information, espionage, identity theft, etc. -- but what happens when software glitches lead to death?

Hearing about how many companies were hacked during the Aurora attacks due to a software vulnerability in Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) is frustrating. Now another attack is ready to be unveiled at Black Hat DC that also uses an IE "feature." The thought of what can and has happened because of these flaws is scary -- theft of personal information, espionage, identity theft, etc. -- but what happens when software glitches lead to death?A co-worker sent me a link to a NYTimes article, "Radiation Offers New Cures, and New Ways to Do Harm," that details several cases where software glitches, computer crashes, and lack of technician review have lead to numerous patients receiving too much radiation, sometimes resulting in their deaths. It's an incredible story highlighting a couple of patients, one of whom was Jerome Parks, who "appreciated the irony of his situation: that someone who earned a living solving computer problems would be struck down by one."

Where does the accountability lay when bad things happen due to software bugs? Several articles and blogs in the past couple of weeks following the Google/Aurora hacks have talked about software vendors' responsibility to produce a secure product, but what about medical software vendors who've written buggy software? These are bugs that haven't resulted in compromised systems, but instead have lead to computer and application crashes resulting in harmful medical treatments that injure, sometimes lethally, the patients.

It's incredible to think that stricter guidelines and protocols aren't in place to prevent these mistakes from happening. In several situations, a technician should have caught the mistake when reviewing the treatment beforehand or monitoring the actual procedure. However, the software didn't have fail-safes in place to notify users that certain settings were configured in a way that could harm the patient. The article does state that fail-safes have been added as a result of mistreatments and deaths.

The NYTimes article also reminded me of one of my favorite technical fiction books, <Stealing the Network: How to Own a Continent. In Chapter 3, a young wannabe hacker is duped into taking a fake job extending a hospital's wireless network to about an additional block's radius. Once finished, he is asked to change the blood type on the medical record of a supposed fictitious patient. Later on, that change has a deadly impact on one of the characters.

I've seen enough vulnerabilities and compromises in medical offices that I'm shocked we don't see more issues as a result of insecure medical systems. It's bad enough that mistreatments are occurring because of software problems, but I believe there's legit concern that an attacker could change a patient's record without the person ever knowing it until it's too late. Heck, it's probably happening as you read this.

At what point can we say enough is enough and put the responsibility onto the software vendors?

John H. Sawyer is a senior security engineer on the IT Security Team at the University of Florida. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are his own and do not represent the views and opinions of the UF IT Security Team or the University of Florida. When John's not fighting flaming, malware-infested machines or performing autopsies on blitzed boxes, he can usually be found hanging with his family, bouncing a baby on one knee and balancing a laptop on the other. Special to Dark Reading.

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