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By intercepting and reverse-engineering the signals exchanged between a heart pacemaker-defibrillator and its programmer, the researchers found they could steal patient information, flatten the device's battery, or send malicious messages to the pacemaker. The attacks they developed can be performed from up to five meters away using standard equipment - but more sophisticated antennas could increase this distance by tens or hundreds of times, they said.
"The consequences of these attacks can be fatal for patients as these messages can contain commands to deliver a shock or to disable a therapy," the researchers wrote in a new paper examining the security of implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs), which monitor heart rhythm and can deliver either low-power electrical signals to the heart, like a pacemaker, or stronger ones, like a defibrillator, to shock the heart back to a normal rhythm.
At least 10 different types of pacemaker are vulnerable, according to the team, who work at the University of Leuven and University Hospital Gasthuisberg Leuven in Belgium, and the University of Birmingham in England. Their findings add to the evidence of severe security failings in programmable and connected medical devices such as ICDs.
They were able to reverse-engineer the protocol used by one of the pacemakers without access to any documentation, and this despite discovering that the manufacturer had made rudimentary attempts to obfuscate the data transmitted. Previous studies of such devices had found all communications were made in the clear.
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