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Dr. Bill's Commentaries

Hacking Our Diabetes Devices   (August 7, 2011)

There is an interesting story from the Associated Press this week about hacking diabetes devices. Jay Radcliffe, who identifies himself as a "Cyber Threat Intelligence Analyst" working for IBM, and who has diabetes and uses an insulin pump, has been experimenting with hacking his own pump and his CGM glucose monitor and has succeeded in shutting down the pump, and tricking the CGM into displaying erroneous data.

A subsequent flurry of news articles point out that the FDA doesn't have standards in place for wireless data transmission for medical devices, and acknowledged that any medical device with wireless communication components can fall victim to eavesdropping. The problem is that these devices transmitted data unencrypted and can accept commands wirelessly from unauthorized devices.

BTW, only pumps that accept data wirelessly from other devices would be affected. My present pump doesn't, but I've been looking at switching someday to another brand that does. And my DexCom sensor does indeed have wireless connections between its transmitter and receiver.

Should diabetes device users be alarmed? I don't think so. One proposed scenario that was mentioned in these recent stories proposes that a hacker with malice in mind would be sitting behind their target on an airplane, and reprogram the target's pump or CGM. Sure, it's theoretically possible, but I can't imagine anyone going to the effort to do so, unless it's part of a James Bond movie or a hairbrained CIA assassination plot (remember the alleged CIA plot to get Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar?)

So, unless you're really into conspiracy theories, relax about these threats. You should worry about realistic threats, like being injured or killed by lightning (annual chance: 1 in 775,000) or being in an accident with a drunk driver (In 2007, an estimated 12,998 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes), not whether your pump will be hacked.

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Dr. Bill Quick began writing at HealthCentral's diabetes website in November, 2006. These essays are reproduced at D-is-for-Diabetes with the permission of HealthCentral.

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