Wireless device signal interference poses greater risk than hacking

As recent reports highlight the vulnerability of some wireless medical devices to hacking, some have moved to introduce protections like a firewall for pacemakers with the perception that some criminal element might want to hack these devices. But as far as at least one industry expert is concerned, people should be more concerned about the growing issue of the interference caused by mobile electronic devices.

Jim Keller of the ECRI Institute in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania told MedCity News that hacking of medical devices and the firewalls being developed to guard against the problem made for a good theoretical discussion, but isn’t really as big a concern as interference between an implanted device and the monitor to which it is transmitting a signal, that can be caused by mobile devices like cell phones and digital media devices.

“There are a growing number of implanted wireless devices and a growing number of interference sources — it’s definitely something the industry is aware of and is working on,” said Keller.

The growing proliferation of wireless signals interfering with transmissions between a wireless medical device to a reader may be a bit mundane compared to the intriguing idea of a criminal element that would target patients, one at a time, with their hacking talents to create criminal mischief or worse, but they do pose a real risk and it’s something the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the government have been looking at.

“I have not seen that [wireless medical devices] is a high-profile target for the hacking community,” said Keller. “One of the perspectives I have is the general proliferation of wireless signals is more of a concern than hacking, with interference from a variety of electronic devices.”

Verizon’s website cautions people with pacemakers and other implantable medical devices to keep their wireless hand-held mobile more than six inches from their device and shouldn’t carry the phone in their breast pocket.

“Security with medical devices, including implantable devices, is an ongoing concern and something the manufacturing community needs to pay more attention to as wireless signals proliferate,” said Keller. “I would say the bigger concerns for security and medical device industries is interference affecting transmission of a signal from a pacemaker to a reader or vice versa.”