Dick Cheney's Fear of Heart Device Hacks Justified, Experts Say

The former vice president said he feared assassination.

ByKatie Moisse
October 21, 2013, 10:05 AM

Oct. 21, 2013— -- Dick Cheney's fear of assassination by heart device hack was justified, according to medical device security experts.

The former vice president, who relied on a pacemaker, an implantable defibrillator and a left ventricular assist device before undergoing a heart transplant in March 2012, said he worried that terrorist hackers could crash the computerized implants – a scenario depicted in the TV series Homeland.

"I found it credible," the 72-year-old said of the fictional plotline on CBS's "60 Minutes." "I was aware of the danger, if you will, that existed."

While there have been no reports of hacking attempts on medical implants in the U.S., scientists have long warned about the possibility.

"Researchers have been looking at this for decades but more seriously since about 2006 or 2007," said medical device securities expert Kevin Fu, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. "But I think it's important to stress that patients are actually much safer using these devices than not."

Fu said hundreds of thousands of Americans have benefitted from implantable devices like pacemakers and pumps, and he's "not aware of single case of someone being harmed."

"[The risks] are based on theoretical, in-lab experiments as opposed to happenings in the real world, if that's at all comforting," said Fu, who has five PhD students in his lab working on improving the cybersecurity of medical devices.

But even the remote possibility of a real-world problem can be unsettling for patients who rely on devices buried deep in their bodies. In 2012, a McAfee researcher revealed that he could trigger a life-threatening release of insulin from an implantable pump 300 feet away. And studies by Fu and others suggest that a "growing list of confirmed cybersecurity vulnerabilities in medical devices pose challenging risks to patients whose privacy or disease management depends on the proper functioning of devices."

But most experts agree that the odds of living a long, healthy life with an implantable device are much higher than those of being hacked.

"Diabetes is infinitely more dangerous than the possibility of a hacker deciding to target your insulin pump," Dr. David Lubarsky, professor and chief of the University of Miami Health System, said of the McAfee experiment.

"I can't emphasize enough that patients are far safer with the devices," Fu added, explaining that for every Cheney that are "tens of thousands of lives saved" by the wirelessly-controlled machines. "And the good news is that there are good people working on approaches to mitigate the risks."

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