Skip A Heartbeat, Why Medical Implants Can Be Easily Hacked

An implant like a pacemaker can be easily hacked.
An implant like a pacemaker can be easily hacked.
Jacques Henno

PARIS — Here's some terrible news for millions of people around the world who need pacemakers, insulin pumps or electrodes that relieve chronic pain or symptoms of Parkinson's disease: These implant devices can be easily hacked.

Remember that episode from television series Homeland a few years ago? The one when hackers attempted to kill a U.S. presidential candidate remotely by accelerating his heartbeat through his pacemaker? That's hardly "pure fiction."

Dick Cheney, a former U.S. vice president, recognized the threat implants pose long before the Homeland episode. Worried about the possible hacking of his cardioverter-defibrillator, a battery-powered device that's placed under the skin to monitor the heart rate, he asked doctors to turn off the implant's wireless function.

"Most medical implants made over the last few years can communicate wirelessly with the exterior," says Anne Canteaut, a director of research at Inria, a French institute for computer science and applied mathematics. "This allows doctors to set up the device and control their patient's condition."

But such communication has many weaknesses. On Sept. 27, American pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson said that Jay Radcliffe, a diabetic patient and cybersecurity expert, had discovered how vulnerable these devices are. The company's Animas OneTouch Ping, available in the U.S. and Canada to administer insulin, could be hacked wirelessly to alter the dosage.

In August, seven researchers at Oxford University showed that brain implants could be hacked. "A patient suffering from chronic pain could be caused ever greater pain, while a patient with Parkinson's could find himself unable to move," says Laurie Pycroft, of the Oxford Functional Neurosurgery.

"The CNIL (France's National Commission on Informatics and Liberty) published a prospective study on connected objects as early as 2014. We had come up with a certain number of scenarios, but we didn't think they'd become true so quickly," says Délia Rahal-Löfskog, who heads the health department at CNIL.

In June last year, three Madrid-based scientists published a comprehensive study on the security of medical implants. Their findings were chilling.

"Most of these devices have no protection whatsoever and, when they do have one, it's obsolete," says Carmen Camara from the IT department of the Carlos III University in Madrid, who co-authored the study.

Hospitals are currently working on implants connected to sensors that enable them to constantly adapt to the patient's condition. Like computers and other connected objects, implants are prone to weaknesses such as inadequate security in the communication network, passwords that are easy to crack and vulnerable software.

How can one prevent implants from getting hacked?

"For local connections that are generally used by doctors to reprogram devices, we need to set up a piracy-proof authentication system. For remote connections that make it possible to collect the device's data on the patient, we need to make sure the transfer is confidential by encrypting the data," says Erik Boucher, an engineer at CNIL. Access to that information would constitute a violation of privacy but so would access to the related metadata. For example, you only need to know which Wi-Fi networks the implant tried to connect to in order to know where the patient is located.

The solution also lies in changing passwords often, not revealing online the device's serial numbers, and raising public awareness. "Any unusual behavior from a patient with an implant should alert doctors to the possibility the device was hacked," says Oxford Functional Neurosurgery's Pycroft.

Although encryption is useful in protecting data, it's hard to implement this measure because of the way implants are structured. "These tiny devices don't have enough battery life, memory and processing power to support traditional encryption protocols," says Shiho Moriai, the head of a research lab that focuses on security at Japan's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology.

Researchers are now exploring if encryption, typically done by the medical implant, can instead be processed by an external computer. But it's going to be years before we know if this method holds the key to keeping implants safe from hackers.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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