UA researchers working to stay a step ahead of medical device hackers

Published: Mar. 22, 2017 at 9:58 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 23, 2017 at 10:19 AM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - University of Arizona researchers are looking for ways to stop a much different sort of hacking than the attacks on companies such as Target and Yahoo.

It's hacking that researchers at the University of Arizona say might someday put your life at risk if you have an implanted medical device.

Scientists are trying to stay one step ahead and protect pacemakers and other life-critical devices.

Darrel Delperdang has a defibrillator/pacemaker implanted in his chest to help his heart.

Implantable medical devices, like Delperdang's, can connect to devices that connect to the internet and that's where the danger from hackers could come from.

"I mean just think, you and I are talking right now and here's a guy one floor over goes, 'Hey, guess what I found on my computer. Let's see what it does to this guy.' And I drop," Delperdang said. "It's frightening that something like this could happen to somebody."

Associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Dr. Roman Lysecky and his team at the University of Arizona are working to keep that from happening.

Lysecky said it hasn't happened yet outside the research laboratory but, he said, it's just a matter of time before someone tries to exploit the security issue.

"You could cause a pacemaker to send an invalid stimulus to a patient that could potentially cause a cardiac arrest. Other researchers have shown that for insulin pumps, you can cause it to actually create a fatal dose of insulin," Lysecky said.

Lysecky's team has created a pacemaker prototype that they can hack, and figure out how to protect.

Some researchers are working on keeping the hackers from getting in in the first place.

Lysecky's team is assuming some will get in.

"And because the hackers can still get in, we need to be able to detect when they get in so then we can actually fix the problem," Lysecky said.

He hopes to see the protective technology in pacemakers and other devices within five years.

"These would result in new implantable devices that have the safeguarded protection which would then require to actually replace the existing ones with the new ones," he said.

Delperdang is grateful researchers are working on the problem.

"You just hope that something that you have that's supposed to save your life can't get hacked. So you're hoping that somebody can protect you," he said.

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